Coming to London has Given Precious Jewell a Taste of Freedom…
Books by Vanessa Riley
Cast of Primary Characters
Prologue: London, February 4, 1816
Chapter One: London, February 4, 1819
Chapter Two: Danger in The Streets
Chapter Three: A Painful Peace
Chapter Four: A Bargain
Episode II of The Bargain
Episode IV of The Bargain
Sneak Peak: Unmasked Heart
Excerpt: Unmasked Heart
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A Port Elizabeth Regency Tale: Episode I
Dear Beautiful Reader,
The Bargain is a serialized story or soap opera told in episodes. Each episode averages from three to eight chapters, about 15,000 to 30,000 words. Each episode resolves one issue. Emotional cliffhangers may be offered, but the plot, the action of the episode, will be complete in resolving the main issue.
My promise to you is that the action will be compelling, and I will tell you in the forward the length of the episode. This episode, Episode I, is four chapters long, 15,000 words. Enjoy these Regency Tales set in South Africa.
Coming to London has given Precious Jewell a taste of freedom, and she will do anything, bear anything, to keep it. Defying her master is at the top of her mind, and she won’t let his unnerving charm sway her. Yet, will her restored courage lead her to forsake a debt owed to the grave and a child who is as dear to her as her own flesh?
Gareth Conroy, the third Baron Welling, can neither abandon his upcoming duty to lead the fledgling colony of Port Elizabeth, South Africa nor find the strength to be a good father to his heir. Every look at the boy reminds him of the loss of his wife. Guilt over her death plagues his sleep, particularly when he returns to London. Perhaps the spirit and fine eyes of her lady’s maid, Precious Jewell, might offer the beleaguered baron a new reason to dream.
[_The Bargain _]is the first Port Elizabeth Regency Tale.
A portion of the Portrait of Catherine Worlée, Princesse de Talleyrand-Périgord (1762-1834) inspired the portrait of Eliza Marsdale set on the cover. The work of art, Portrait of Catherine Worlée, is in the public domain and can be found at Wikicommons.
The cover is an inspired work of Sanura Jayashan commissioned for this book.
I dedicate this book to my copy editor supreme, my mother, Louise, my loving hubby, Frank, and my daughter, Ellen. Their patience and support have meant the world to me.
I also dedicate this labor of love to critique partners extraordinaire: June, Mildred, Lori, Connie, Gail.
I give special thanks to Piper, the lady who held my hand and led me to discover Precious Jewell’s fire.
Love to my mentor, Laurie Alice, for answering all my endless questions.
And I am grateful for my team of encouragers: Sandra, Michela, Kim, and Rhonda.
Swept Away, A Regency Fairy Tale
The Bargain, A Port Elizabeth Tale, Episode I-IV
Unmasked Heart, A Regency Challenge of the Soul Series
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Copyright © 2015 Vanessa Riley
Published by BM Books
A Division of Gallium Books
Suite 236B, Atlanta, GA 30308
All rights reserved. This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Cast of Primary Characters
Baron Welling (the second Lord Welling): the late uncle of Gareth Conroy.
Precious Jewell: a slave brought from South Carolina in 1821 as the personal maid of the late Eliza Marsdale Conroy.
[*Eliza Marsdale *]of Charleston, South Carolina, married Gareth Conroy. The marriage was arranged by the (2nd) Baron Welling and Eliza’s father, a wealthy cotton plantation owner.
Gareth Conroy: the third Baron Welling, succeeded to the title upon the death of his uncle. He has been commissioned to lead the colony of Port Elizabeth, South Africa.
Jonas Conroy: the son born to Eliza Marsdale. She died shortly after childbirth.
[*Mr. Palmers: *]the butler for Gareth Conroy. He runs the staff at Firelynn Hall.
Old Jack: a groom employed by a neighbor to Firelynn.
Her mistress’s groans pierced the air, breaking Precious Jewell’s heart again. The birth had gone all wrong. Eliza wasn’t going to make it.
Precious coddled the newborn in her arms, smoothing linen about his tiny body. He looked mighty content for all the ruckus his early comin’ caused.
Lowering her gaze to the sweat-dampened bedsheets, the spatters of crimson swaddling the blanket by Eliza’s stomach, only questions remained. Why Eliza? Why now?
The doctor shifted from his post at the door. “There’s nothing more to be done.”
His starched tie fell asunder. He looked very different from the know-it-all who’d arrived hours earlier. If the man had only listened and taken the babe sooner, Eliza wouldn’t be so weak now.
“I’ll get the vicar.” The cowardly man left the bedchamber.
The butler stalked away from the bed, and passed Precious as if she weren’t there. He rounded to the window. Palmers’s old stone face looked broken. “How will we tell His Lordship?”
Useless menfolk; thinkin’ of other men, not Eliza.
They should be encouraging her mistress, not counting the seconds for the reaper to appear. “She ain’t gone yet. Maybe you should send prayers to that Sunday God of yours.”
Palmers returned to the canopied bed. “Watch your tongue, Jewell. There’s no need for your opinions.”
“Stop, you two.” The weak cry slipped from Eliza. “Let my final moments be of peace.”
Tears pressed on Precious’s eyes. Oh, how flushed her poor friend looked. “Let me give you something to drink, Miss Eliza. You might get strength from water. Don’t you want some…?”
Eliza’s head slowly shook. Her pinkie shifted and waggled. It was her way when she wanted to appear demure, but still show disapproval. “Not now. Something more important.”
Precious moved to the head of the massive bed frame. “Open your eyes, and see your son. You gotta fight for him. Your husband needs you, too.”
The lady’s pinkie started to shiver like it would fall off. “He’s made his choices.” The kitten-like voice bore a sharpness, a biting pain. “Let him burn for going off to his uncle. Tell him that.”
Palmers spun and clutched his dark mantle. “He’s to be the baron tonight. He had to be at his uncle’s last breath. Duty claimed him, mum. You will be the next Lady Welling.”
At this, Eliza’s eyes opened. Red-rimmed pupils flashed before settling on her son. “For a few minutes, I have a title. Write my father of it. He’s paid for it.”
“Hush now, Miss Eliza. You should save your strength. In a few days, we’ll be getting you styled for another cluster of parties. You’ll be the new Lady Wellin’ Welling.”
Gasping, as if her lungs leaked, Eliza closed her eyes. “What’s that worth? No more promises on things… can’t touch.” She clenched her teeth together as her body vibrated, her fingers latching on to the mound of bedclothes.
Precious turned. The babe shouldn’t witness his mother’s passing.
“It’s fine, friend.” Eliza’s voice became softer. “Let me see him one more time.”
Wiping a tear on her emerald sleeve, Precious rotated the babe to a secure position within the crook of her arm, and slipped back to the mattress. “He’s beautiful. Your son’s beautiful.”
Eliza’s hand moved as if to touch the boy, but then dropped to the bed. “Promise me, Precious. Love him for me. You must do this.”
“I’ll do what I can for him. Now, hush with this fever talk.”
“I free you, Precious. Let everyone know that I freed you. And you will mother this child for me.”
Was this one of Eliza’s jokes? She needed to be careful. That Sunday God might be watching. “Do you want to try to hold him? Maybe the warmth of his little body would keep warmth in yours—”
“I’m serious. You’re free if you will love my son.”
The solemn vicar and the doctor stepped into the room. The clergyman started reading from his Bible.
Eliza screamed, then took a breath. “Precious Jewel is a free woman. No more my slave. She will care for my son, Jonas.”
Palmers stepped backward and moved to the window. “His father should name him and, as his heir to the barony, perhaps he should be Gareth, the lord’s namesake.
“It shall be Jonas.” With a shaking limb, Eliza lifted a weak hand and brushed the foolscap on the baby’s crown. “Promise me. I’ve done some bad things. Giving you freedom is a good thing. Promise, P.”
Even as Precious nodded, Eliza’s hand fell with a slap onto the bedsheets.
Her eyes closed, never again to see the morning.
The baby squirmed, then started to cry.
Tears leaked from Precious’s eyes, too, for Eliza would never hear Precious yell, “Yes!”
[_ L_]ightening crashed about the great windows of Firelynn Hall, but that didn’t frighten Precious Jewell none. No, it was the tinkling of broken glass coming from downstairs that set the hair on the back of her neck in a tizzy.
She stilled her vibrating fingers against the stark white apron of her dark-emerald maidin’ outfit. The feel of the cloth, so starched and formal, so different from the plain hand-me-downs she’d gotten in Charleston filled her middle with something, not quite pride, not joy either. Something. Reckon three years in London offered better treatment.
Angered mumbles floated up to the echoing hall, sending more trembles to her spine. The master fumed again, but time was running out. She couldn’t put off her request any more. A drunken set down or slap couldn’t be any worse than what she’d suffered. That was England’s benefit. She hadn’t been lashed for slapping a fresh footman or coal boy.
Pushing herself forward, Precious forced her feet to work and crept until she made it to the edge of the stairs. Her body froze, with toes dangling over the thick tread. She had every right to approach the master like the other servants.
Nodding like a twit, she tried to hold that sentiment in her tummy, clenching it tight within her middle, but the grand mirror exposed a small brown face with quivering lips. Lyin’ to yourself in your head was as bad as lyin’ out loud.
And she weren’t …wasn’t a servant, not without papers.
Thunder moaned and set the house to shaking. A wail sounded, shattering the little bit of courage she possessed. Little Jonas must be taken with fright. He must need her.
Her slippers turned a little too easy and Precious pattered back to the nursery. It was better to see about the baby than tend to herself. Well, that weren’t a lie. It just felt heavy like one. Excuses had a way of piling up on your back until you fell over. Right now, Precious would tumble with the slightest wind.
She pushed open the wide paneled door. Sure enough, Jonas stood in the middle of his bed covers. He cried, but this time the noise was muted. She’d heard him cry for hours like a banshee, but he must know his Pa was in a bad way. She came closer, her voice set to a whisper. “Jonas, darlin’, brave boy. You must settle.”
The whites of the two-year-old’s eyes loomed large. Tears puddled, too, but the little man didn’t let them go. He must know silence was better.
Heart aching, she picked him up from his crib. “Birthday boy, all will be well.”
Thunder groaned, and light blazed through the thick glass panes. For a moment she fingered her apron to see if the Lord above had smote her for fibbing. Surely, a good God knew you couldn’t tell a babe the truth, that his father was demented with grief. “Jonas, sweetheart, go back to sleep; shut those blue eyes. You have your pappy’s crystal blues, but all of Eliza’s blonde locks. And she’s looking upon you smiling and singing. But she sure would get me for letting you fidget.”
When his mouth puckered, letting out a low spittin’ sob, Precious held him closer. Having him shouting would add more upset to the household. No, this little angel needed to be spared his father’s wrath. Lord knows, Jonas hadn’t seen enough of his pa, and viewing the man drunk or yelling wouldn’t be good.
The cherub in her arms snuggled against the pleats of the low neckline, exposing her blouse. Paper or no papers, this time of caring for Jonas would end. Soon a proper governess for the boy would be sought, someone who could teach him all the ways of the English. Someone not a slave.
Precious jumped as Jonas touched her neck. He’d reached and gripped one of her fat braids slipping from her mobcap. The blackness looked like rope against his rosy palm. “Momma, make better.”
Her pulse slowed as she sucked in a deeper breath. “I’m not your momma, Jonas. Call me Mammie Precious. Maybe your Pa will get you a new one someday.”
An ache rippled inside. No one could ever replace Eliza, and definitely not these hoity-toity English misses. Precious had seen them, spying on the master, bribing a footman for his whereabouts when Eliza was barely cold in the ground.
The child yawned and burrowed into the crook of her arm. He wasn’t paying her no mind. But, it wasn’t best to pretend she’d get to be in his life once his pappy left for South Africa. Mr. Palmer would see to that. She shook her head, trying to rid it of a hundred horrible thoughts of her dealin’s with the prideful butler and focused on the boy. “Your mother, Elisa Marsdale, was the kindest of souls, so good –”
The noise was very loud. Even Jonas’s sleepy eyes popped open again.
Somehow she eased him back into the crib and tucked the blanket about him tight, all whilst her hands shook. “Now back to sleep, you. No more fussing. If your pa sends me away, know I love you.”
The lad nodded and, before his blue eyes could draw her back, Precious hastened to the door. Lifting her moss-colored skirts, she scampered down the treads, heading for the master’s study.
Mr. Palmer came out of the room. His stern face looked sad, with a deep frown planted between old saggy jowls. As if he had just noticed her, he leveled his shoulders and snapped to attention. “What are you doing up, Jewell? Is the child well?”
“Yes, sir, but I must speak with Mr. Wellin’.”
He looked past her, as was his custom when dealing with servants he felt beneath him. “It’s Lord Welling. You’ve been here almost four years, and you still get it wrong. What will you be teaching his heir?”
She scrunched up her apron to give her fingers something to do other than fumble. “You won’t have that problem for much longer. I’m sure you’ll find someone approp… perfect upon the lord’s leaving next week. In fact, I’ll bring it to Lord Well-ing’s notice now.”
As she stepped forward, Palmers blocked her path. “No. His lordship is in no mood to be disturbed. Return to your room. That’s an order. You know what that is?”
She knew what orders were. They were ingrained in her brain, and the consequences of disobedience had cut scars upon her back. Precious nodded and forced her body to turn. Gall wet her tongue. So close, too close to be chased away by a hoity-toity butler.
Palmers plodded past her and headed to the west wing. As she made it to the stairs leading to the basement, she watched his stiff form covered in the black livery uniform disappear into the dark passage.
Twisting stairs leading to her small chamber below sat in front of her. Forty-five steps and she’d be inside her closet-sized quarters, one shared with a scullery maid. In Charleston, the slave quarters were big but shared by four or five. Maybe the small cellar room was what the lowest of servants of the house could have. Once the master left, how much longer would Mr. Palmers let her stay in it? He didn’t think she deserved anything but a hay bale, to be stabled like an animal.
If he tossed her out, would she become a Blackamoor at a brothel or worse, sold again and returned to South Carolina or Jamaica? Her fingers latched onto the waxed rail for strength. The smooth wood felt good beneath her thumb, cooling the fever of thoughts running rampant.
A memory of Eliza pushing her, encouraging her to slide down the big one at her pa’s manor in Charleston, fluttered in her mind’s eye. Precious had held her breath, put her bottom on the banister and slipped the length of it. For a few seconds, it felt like flying. It was reckless and heady and would’ve earned Precious such a beating if Mr. Marsdale had caught her, but sailing free was worth it. Wasn’t freedom worth every risk?
Thunder erupted, and the storm pelted the roof in a steady punching manner. Her breath came in spurts as she remembered a backhand to the jaw, the stings of a whip, all endured protecting herself. The freedom to refuse sweaty advances was worth the beating, so complete freedom had to be, too.
Precious unglued her hand, pivoted, and headed for the study. Pausing, she counted the dents in the fretwork trim surrounding the threshold. At ten, she leveled her shoulders and knocked on Lord Welling’s study door.
Nothing. No grunt. No deep voice, full of command, answered.
But no turning back either.
She pried open the heavy double doors and slunk inside. The heat of the room stung her cheeks. The stench of liquor and cigar smoke hung in the air, adding a sheen to the measly candlelight in the corner.
A few more steps and she spied her master.
Lord Wellings slumped at the fireplace. His tall formed hunched over the white wood mantle as the huge portrait of Eliza hung over him. The fastidious man had his shirttails exposed beneath a rumpled waistcoat. A cranberry coat lay dumped on the floor. His head, crowned with thick brown hair, sat tucked in one arm. A clear goblet hung from the other.
How drunk was he? Could she reason with him cast to the winds? The first day she saw him, his lean face held a hardy laugh. His wit, Mr. Marsdale said, could dice up a hard turnip. Maybe liquor slowed his brainbox down enough to agree to anything.
“Aw, Eliza’s Precious Jewell. My Precious Jewell.”
His voice with the stiff accent would be perfect for sermon-making. The authority in the deep tones prickled her skin, made her feel as if she’d been caught being naughty. She nodded. “Yes, sir.”
He downed the amber contents of his drink then pounded the mantle. “Isn’t—” A hiccup left his pursed lips. “Isn’t your job to see that the child sleeps? Madame, aren’t you missing a moment to mother him?”
Was he taunting her? Why? It was her responsibility to see about the child. His harsh tone almost sounded jealous. That couldn’t be right. Alcohol was an evil thing.
“What does the mouse want?”
She should just say it. Give me papers to keep me free, off slave ships, and out of brothels. Then no man could have the right to touch her. Looking into the baron’s red-rimmed eyes, the words stuck in her craw. Courage dropping away, she turned. “Good night.”
“So the mouse is running away? Fine. Leave me, too.”
She weren’t a rat, nothing that low. She fiddled with the pocket of her apron then rotated to face him. “You drink too much drink. There’s no reasoning with a bottle.”
Like a foaming wave at the ocean, laughter poured out of him. “Tell me something that’s not so obvious.” He straightened and waved her forward. “You should drink with me too. You know what tonight is?”
Of course she did. Everyone in Firelynn Hall knew. Precious just stared at him.
He grunted hard and eyed her too. “It’s the day I let your Miss Eliza die.”
Thunder crashed outside, and his hand closed tight about the glass, breaking it. Red poured from his palm. “Augh. Bloody thing.”
Precious dashed to his side and drew his hand up in her apron. “Foolhardy man.”
He winced, snatched his hand away. “I chose to go to my uncle, to do his bidding. Who knew they’d both die that night?”
She felt for him, remembering the arguments Eliza had had with the master about who he loved more. Sympathy ate at her gut, but it disappeared when Precious spied her pristine apron darkening with growing red spots. “You fool. You’re bleeding to death.”
Charging him, she seized his palm, and plucked out two shards of glass. The fire spit at her as she tossed them to the hearth. “You think dying will bring her back? Nothin’ will do that.”
His deep blue eyes beaded as he yanked his back arm. “That hurts, woman. Leave me. Let me drink to my lady gone.”
Droplets trickled onto his waistcoat as he gazed at Eliza’s portrait. The eyes formed of paint seemed focused on him, probably disgusted at his drinking.
The proud man would bleed to death and, with the smears on her apron, she’d be blamed. Precious came in here for freedom, not a heap more trouble. She grabbed his hand again and bound it tightly, wrapping it around and around in her poor apron. “You got a boy. Eliza’s son needs you.”
Lord Welling stopped fidgeting and let her tie a knot. His bloodshot eyes widened and seemed to settle on her face. “Well, as I leave to go defend my uncle’s work, it will be you who cares for him.”
“He’s a good boy, but he’ll need his pa to make him a good man.”
“How can I show him that? I scarcely remember what that is.”
A final knot secured the makeshift bandage. The cuts of the glass had gone deep. “Start by not going to Africa. It’s a bad place.” She bit her lip, but the words burned too much to be silent. “My grammy talked of how it changed when y’all came.”
“Y’all?” His stiff accent, sort of questioning, sort of condescending, grated on her ear. He wiggled his fingers within the wrapping of her ruined apron. “You mean the slave traders, those y’all? The house of Welling never participated in such transactions.”
No, they just inherited slaves by marriage. The baron’s hands weren’t clean. They were wet in the stains of it, like now with his own spilt blood. She swallowed the irksome thoughts and focused on Jonas. That would be a reason for the man to stay. “Your son needs you here. There’s nothin’ worse than not seeing your pa. Even just a notion or whisper of him in passing, day to day is better than never.”
His face scrunched and then tilted up toward Eliza’s picture. “She hated it here. Thought the weather too foul. I should’ve listened and made her last years more pleasant.”
That didn’t make sense, but that’s how guilt worked. She eyed his very lean cheeks, ones missing his laugh dimples, through the lace of her floppy mobcap. He was tall, too tall. “She was very pleased to be a baron’s wife.”
“Pleased? Was she pleased, waiting for my return from tending to my uncle’s affairs? Was she happy waiting for the accoucheur to deliver the babe alone? Was she pleased she never got her title, dying before my uncle? Only a few hours separated them from Heaven’s gate. Well, at least she made it in.”
Men were dumb about birthin’. “That baby didn’t wait. Some women weaken in the process. It takes all they have to give life. The Lord just—” She snapped her mouth shut as a belly full of laughs rolled out of his lips.
“Stop, Jewell.” He wobbled over to his sideboard and pried at the glass top of bottled spirits. The makeshift bandage must’ve prevented him from getting a good grip and popping it open.
She plodded across the thick carpet, coming again within a few feet of him. “You can’t need more.”
“I surely don’t want less.” His eyes widened and he drew himself up as if her boldness had suddenly penetrated his drunken brain. “I didn’t ask you to be my keeper.”
“But you’re mine.
A lazy smirk appeared, making his eyes a darker shade of blue.
Such a turbulent river stirred within him, and sometimes it pulled her like undertow, but Precious didn’t like swimming or drowning. With a shake of her head, she looked away to the floor. “That’s what I came to discuss before you are off to who knows where.”
He set down the bottle and rubbed at his neck, shoving his loosed hair to the side. He wore it longer than most, giving him more of a pirate look like in the stories Eliza read. “I was wondering when the mouse would say her piece.”
With a tug, he whipped off his rumpled cravat. “You’ve been skulking about ever since I returned to Firelynn Hall. Something tells me you have an ask. Say it.”
He’d noticed her. Had he seen the many times she let her courage slide away? Not again. She planted a hand on her hip. “I need my papers, sir.”
His eyes blinked, his forehead riddling with lines. “What papers?”
“My freedom.” Her voice sounded horrible, hollow and low. A quick cough and a short breath allowed her to strengthen her tone and appear strong. “I need papers to show, to get my next employment.”
“You need no other possibilities. You work for me.” He pulled his massive arms together, almost missing the elbows he now cupped. “Why should you work elsewhere?”
“The missus. She gave me my freedom that horrid night. Mr. Palmers was there. He heard it.”
The baron took a step backward, planting his foot close to the sideboard, almost falling. “You sly thing. You use the anniversary of her death to coerce me.”
“I speak truth.” She picked up his brandy container and shook it. “The only things you listen to are these spirits.”
He reached for it and, as if swimming in a mud hole, he stumbled forward with arms flying.
She put her hand on his chest to steady him.
He seized her arms, drawing her to his side. One massive arm pinned her against him. The buttons of his onyx waistcoat smashed into her cheek.
His breath was soaked in liquor, blended with the hint of vanilla of his skin, the scent of ash and soot from the roaring fire. “Mouse, give it back.”
His words heated the crown of her head and his arms tightened about her. Shocked and shaking, she twisted and pushed to get free, but there was no budging from the baron’s death grip. “Let me go.”
“Shhh. You’re talking too much.” With his free hand, he slid his fingers down the length of her back. She could feel his pinkie tracing the eyelets of her corset. Squirming, she tried to shift to keep him from picking at the ribbons of her undergarment. Being fully clothed didn’t stop her panic, and she rocked and pressed against his iron-like embrace to be free. Never, ever did it settle into her head that Lord Welling was like the rest; a man who took what he wanted.
Brain swimming in sea of choice brandy, Gareth Conroy, Lord Welling, held the thief in place. How dare the wench take his bottle and taunt him with it? He searched a little more, here and there, until his fingers claimed the dimpled glass from her fidgeting hands. “There, now I’ve found it.”
He released his grip, and the mouse scampered away. Must be the effects of the drink, but did the girl look scared? She couldn’t have thought to keep it all herself. He sloshed the bottle. Amber honey flooded to one side then the other. There was enough to share.
Bosom heaving, she moved out his reach and trembled by the fire. “I need my papers.” Her voice almost sounded as if she were choking.
With a grunt, he pivoted and put his full concentration on liberating the stopper. Another second or two of quick jabs popped the top, flinging it with a thud to scamper across the waxed sideboard. His vision made it split into two, so he let it be and poured a glass. “The morning papers have upset me of the riots, but they are nothing to be frightened of. We are safe here.”
Before he could fix his lips to the wiggling goblet of needed joy, the mouse came closer again. Her roasted-almond complexion bore hints of red along her cheeks. And, upon further inspection, he realized her curves held a sizeable endowment, not at all the scrawny thing that accompanied his wife from the Carolinas. “Miss Eliza gave me my freedom. Would you ignore her dyin’ request, too?”
He swallowed a gulp of fire, but his nerves felt doused with kerosene. His temper, which had deflated in his game of find the bottle, now raged anew. The maid’s word too held accusation. And it made the cold stuff in his veins burn. “Be careful, madam. I’m indulging this interruption to my privacy, but even amusements have their limits.”
The censure in his voice did the trick. The pert Jewell lowered her chin as she clasped a wavering hand.
It must be the brandy, for something in him suddenly saddened at the loss of her fire. He lifted the glass again to his lips but stopped. Perhaps if he kept from further soaking his brain, he could figure out why the mouse ran in here. Was she dashing for a clock? He put down the liquor. “You were very dear to my wife. I’d find you in each other’s confidence. I watch you sometimes with Jonas. Same love.”
Jewell’s countenance lifted, full lips parted, and a resilient voice sounded. “Was always the way with us, since I could remember. That’s why she freed me. You must make it right.”
Now the mouse gave orders? The blend of audacity and humble pie tweaked his humor and his pride. “Lady Welling didn’t have the power to free you. Let me acquaint you to English law. Once a woman marries, all her money, possessions, even her rights become her husband’s. So how could my wife give what she didn’t have?”
Thunder boomed, and the girl’s chestnut eyes widened so much that flecks of emerald and gold showed, just like Eliza’s. He reached for the girl to catch a part of his late wife, but Jewell ran.
She passed through the patio doors, the one leading to the smallish garden and then to alley. From the popped opening, the wind hissed and spit into his study.
The fool girl left him for the rain and the evils of dark London streets. He wobbled to the glass panes and leaned against it, staring at the sea of blackness, but couldn’t find her. The buckets of water dumping from above hid her. Yes, God was good at taking things away from Gareth.
A jolt went through him as he turned and witnessed his Eliza’s painting bearing down on him, judging him for things out of his control.
Gut burning, he put his sore palm to his head and tried to block the disappointment his love had had in him and his own noisy conscience.
The cackle of taunting thunder forced him to swivel back to window. How could he let Jewell go and take the last traces of Eliza, too?
[_ T_]he rain soaked through Precious’s blouse down to her corset, icing her skin. The harshness of the cold water couldn’t chill the fright pushing in her lungs, unable to break free. And though Lord Welling didn’t mean no harm, his grip on her waist intensified the fear trapped in her flesh. Would the nightmares ever go away?
Her slippers slapped at the sidewalk, and she slowed her steps. Lord Welling weren’t a brute. Eliza would’ve said something. Maybe.
No, he was just a thief who stole her hopes. Her heart slowed as she stopped running. Nobody chased her yet.
Bending over to catch a breath, her mobcap flew with the wretched wind. Everything in her head ached, down to her eye sockets. It was cruel to hope and to have kept freedom pent up in her skull. She should’ve asked before now and not believed for two years she was free.
Turning her face to the dark night sky, she let the pounding rain drench her cheeks. The sloppy drops spit at her, but something needed to remove the tracks of salt.
Maybe the God Eliza swore was real would do that one thing now; use His rain to cleanse her of hope and despair.
Yet, how could there be a God, and a good one? He let Eliza die. He let a whole world of people be set in chains. “Not fair. When will it be fair?”
The sound of horses’ hooves pounded behind her. Her heart slammed against her chest. Lord Welling had sent men to retrieve his property. What punishment would he give his runaway slave?
But where else would she go? The coins sewn into her apron were still at Firelynn, wrapped about the baron’s hand. Precious had nothing.
Empty, she turned to surrender, but the carriage passed her by. A sigh of relief escaped her mouth. She was safe for another few minutes, but the dark streets of London weren’t good for black or white, servant or free.
Out of options, she listened to the pain in her temples and plodded back to Firelynn. If she humbled herself, Lord Welling might make her punishment light. He’d already given her the worst blow. What damage could a caning on the backside do now?
Still not free.
Her heart wept on the inside, shuddering her chest. All the plans, the dreams, gone with his words. No, Lord Welling couldn’t do more harm.
Brushing at her chin, her fingers caught in soggy flopping hair. Her thick curls spun tighter about her thumb, drawing up and unraveling from the weight of the rain. Goodness, she must look like a wet mop, with her soggy braids slapping at her jaw. What a sad lump she was.
Hunching her shoulders, she walked a little faster. Such a cold she could catch being waterlogged. A shadow moved between houses. She bit at her lip to keep from uttering a shriek. Chiding herself, she pressed forward. Counting at least as many birthdays as Eliza, all eighteen or twenty of them, Precious was too big to be seeing ghosts.
Yet, the thing moved again. The beast or man came out of the dark, his twisted jowls highlighted by a flash of thunder made her arms pimple.
Tugging at the tucker bibbing her neck, she tried to ignore it and hurry past.
“Blackamoor.” The voice sounded loud and cutting. A man followed. His boots knocked a steady gait behind her. “Come here, you.”
What was she thinking or not thinking, wandering the streets of London at night?
Swoop. He jumped in front of her, blocking her way. His eyes held flames. The devil was in him, she was sure of it. “Why not stay and play with Old Jack?”
She shook her head and backed up. “I must be heading to my master at Firelynn.”
“Black-a-more, I’ll be your master tonight.”
Spinning, she dashed to his right. Crunching down, she sprinted and sped as if she were back in the woods in old Charleston, chasing rabbit.
Blam, blam blam. His heels knocked against the cobblestones lining the ground. He reached and clawed at her sleeve. “Wench, I called you!”
There was evil in his voice. It didn’t sound human; how could anybody bent on destruction sound otherwise? This attack would be her fault. She’d asked danger to kiss her, to tear at her clothes and make her vulnerable.
She balled her fist about her collar and ran faster. Her skirts were heavy with water, but there was a light ahead. Maybe a groom or stable boy could be alerted in the mews. Yet would anybody care a whit about a runaway?
The sky moaned but the rain settled into a drizzle. A light fog swallowed the earth, but the beast kept chasin’. From the cut of the buildings, Firelynn was only three blocks now. Surely, the library door was still open.
“Black Harriot. Give us a taste of your finery!”
She wasn’t a prostitute. Her ears and her heart burned. Hadn’t she vowed that no one would make her feel that low again?
The man’s shadow overtook hers. The stench of gin and sweat caught her as he got a firm grasp of her shoulder.
She struggled and swung with her arms, but her slippers tangled in her wet skirts and she tumbled. Smack, she landed so hard onto the cobbles her stomach deflated like a ripped sack of corn, dribbling pops of air from her lips and nose. Her cheek met a loosed stone and stung. Flat upon the soggy ground, she was helpless and ashamed.
“Blackamoor. Jack will be good to you if you give me a show.” The beast grabbed her by the braids and hauled her up, but she managed to scoop up a rock from the ground. “You’d make a nice one to bed tonight. More than old Jack could hope for.”
He twisted her hair and jerked her to him. This couldn’t be the first woman he’d treated like a whore, but it would be one he’d never forget. Balling her hand about the stone, she punched him in his breeches. As he stumbled backward, she slung the cobble at his head.
The thud of the hit deafened. The rock surely crunched his jaw, breaking bone. “Augh! You hellcat. You’ll pay for that.”
In the moonlight, the shine of his blade blinded. He meant to kill her. Her heart pounded as she hefted her skirts and tried again to outrun him. If only she hadn’t fled from Lord Welling.
An arm grabbed about her middle. Fingers gripped her throat. A last breath whizzed from her lips. She fought the blackness and clenched to absorb the sting of the knife. Lord, let death be quick. There had to be freedom in that.
“Release her!” The deep voice penetrated her nightmare. She blinked and caught sight of a sharp metal point coming full bore at her.
Somehow, the pressure along her windpipe disappeared, and she fell onto the street. Freed, she took a full breath and peered up.
Lord Welling stood there, wonderful and strong, with a gleaming rapier. The long, thin sword pressed at her attacker’s Adam’s apple. “Why should I let you live?”
“She broke my… She hit me with a rock. I’m entitled to something for the damages!”
A guttural noise flung from Welling’s lips, and he pounded forward. His dark cape fluttered, shrouding half his body. He looked more the villain than a hero, but part of her needed a villain, someone to steal away all the evil that had ever touched her.
From the howling squeal of the man who’d tried to humble her, her master’s change of stance must’ve inflicted pain. Good. Had he made his rapier draw blood for her or for the sake of his property?
“Sir, don’t force me to pay her debt. You won’t like how I settle scores.”
Lord Welling glanced in her direction. Even in the low light of the moon, she could see fury burning in his eyes. His attention swiveled back to the fiend. “There’s a bruise to her cheek. Maybe I should take an ear for payment. That would do nicely and give my hounds a treat to eat.”
“I ain’t done nothin’. Tell him, witch!”
Precious didn’t say a word, just pulled her arms about her knees.
“Tell him, please.” The beast’s voice cracked.
Good. Maybe he knew her terror. Oh, very good.
“She’s your blackamoor, Welling. I ain’t touched her. Keep her locked up ‘fore something bad happens to her. And you shouldn’t be so greedy. Give up your English Black since you’ll be king of a whole city of them in Africa.” The man backed off, turning toward the alley. “Well, I’ll keep tabs on your piece while you’re away. Next time, love.”
Next time? Everyone knew the baron was leaving. Her stomach sickened and a silent tear dripped down her sore cheek. No papers, and now a fool wanted vengeance. Maybe it would be best to be sent back to Charleston. Those men weren’t any better than these, and there she wouldn’t fill her head with dreams.
Welling’s boots appeared when her tears cleared. “Come along, Miss Jewell.”
The tall man bent with arm extended, stooping low to help her from the street. “Sure you’re not hurt?” His sweet blue eyes seemed large and full of concern, a little too much for just checking property.
Avoiding his hand, she nodded and slowly stood. At full height, dizziness claimed her, but she couldn’t let the baron know. She’d already caused enough problems.
“Very well, mouse; back to Firelynn.”
After a block or two of walking, she lifted her gaze to the baron. Her conscience couldn’t take more silence. “Thank you.”
One of his missing dimples popped as he slid his rapier under the crook of his arm. “I would have gotten here sooner, but it took a moment to find my cloak. And even more so to sober up.” He began to laugh, a hearty bellow. “Choose another night to frighten me out of my wits.”
Something needed to fill up the stillness of the night, but all she could think of was Old Jack. He’d be back and, without the protection of her master, he’d get what he wanted. With trembling fingers, she clutched at her blouse.
Her soggy slippers slapped at the stone steps as he guided her back the way she had escaped. “I didn’t mean to make trouble.”
He closed the patio door and pointed to a chair by his sideboard. “Warm yourself by the fire.”
She nodded and sank by the hearth. The heat felt good, taking away the cold eating at her fingertips.
“Running in the middle of the night is a foolish thing, Jewell. I didn’t know my words would affect you so.”
“Anyone ever take your freedom with a word?” She covered her mouth and bowed her dizzy head. “I should remember myself.”
A strong chuckle left him, so much so that she lifted her head to view him.
Shaking off his cape, she saw that the arm hidden in all the flowing velvet still bore her apron. Hurt, he came after her. Did property mean that much to him?
“Jewell, do you need a doctor?”
He picked up a shiny tray holding his brandy bottle and two glasses. “Do me a favor and pour us each one.”
Her reflection on the metal showed a wild urchin; braids everywhere, red marks indented on along her throat, a bruised cheek. Her shaking fingers poured a half glass for him, but none for her. “You don’t need more. You’re so much better not under its influence.”
A lazy smile and his other missing dimple bloomed as he picked up the drink and took a sip. “I’ll keep that in mind. You remember that if that blackguard had succeeded in … you would have little redress.”
“Yes, I’m property. No one goes to jail for damages to property.”
“No, people do swing from the gallows for theft. A black or mulatto has little relief from the law. It might not be allowed for you to testify. So when I am gone, be very careful. You and I have made an enemy.”
Fingers tangling in the righting of her loosed braids, she wanted to be out of her master’s sight, but one thing stood in the way. Punishment. With a swallow, she stared at him. “May I have my due for runnin’?”
His face pinched as if he didn’t know what she talked about. He shook his head. “Don’t know if you’re prepared for more wrath. Go to your room; I’ll think of it tomorrow.”
She backed out of his study, nodding, half-curtsying. This kindness felt odd. Why did he treat her so well with all the trouble she’d caused? Foolish English.
Not owning any others, he must not know the customs for doling out punishment. Or maybe he knew she’d pay soon enough at Old Jack’s hands.
[_ N_]othin’ worse than preparing for a caning and having to wait for it, waking every morning with dread in her belly, all day walking on tiptoes. Yet, no punishment came for Precious. Three days passed and no whip or stick befell her backside. It was as if she hadn’t run, hadn’t needed rescuing by the master. Had he been so drunk he’d forgotten?
That couldn’t be it. He was lucid, with eyes that sparked. Well, they possessed a brave fire before he started drinking the brandy again.
She shook her head and put her mind to Little Jonas. Her skinned knee stung as she knelt four paces in front of the boy, but the thick carpet of the nursery offered some cushion. Smiling, she held her hands out to him. “Come on, little man. Take another step.”
The boy giggled and tottered, then stopped when he wobbled and almost toppled to the floor.
“Try again, little man.”
He puckered his lips. “Uh uh.”
Patting the thick brown carpet, she tried to entice him, but those rosy cheeks weren’t havin’ it.
“You want me to wait? Waitin’s no good.” Waitin’ was bad. Had she gotten the courage to confront Lord Welling sooner, she could take back a year of dreams. Thinkin’ you’re free, only to be put back in a box; that was no good.
Jonas started to laugh. “Mama funny.”
“Sweet child, I’m not. Mammy, some say in Charleston. I—
Before she could finish, the door to nursery creaked open. Precious barely lifted her gaze, expecting Mr. Palmers or a lower floor maid, but the sight of her master made her jump. “Yes, sir.”
“Mama, eh?” His eyes held a smile as he stepped closer to his son.
Cringing, she felt an extra lash would be added to her for this. Wiping her brow, she spoke with muffled voice. “I always correct him, Lord Welling. I meant no disrespect.”
He waved at her as if to stop the explanations. “He’s walking now? Time keeps moving.”
“How much you’ll miss when you venture off to Africa.” The words flew out of her mouth before her good sense started her brain to workin’.
Folding his arms, his shoulders tugged at his dark blue coat. “The plan was for his mother to be here with him as I went about my duty. With her gone, I don’t have other options. My inheritance… “ He looked away, half-pivoting, so all Precious could see was his ramrod-straight back and a freshly bandaged hand pulled to his buff breeches.
Little Jonas moved and waddled forward, lunging at his father’s boots. The child was all giggles, clutching the master’s leg, fallin’ upon the highly polished Wellingtons.
The baron bent as if to hug the boy, but his arms stayed fixed.
Maybe a little encouragement would set things right between Jonas and the baron. “Pick ‘im up, sir. A child needs to know his father’s love.”
Lord Welling lifted his head, a dimple peeking like he’d swallowed a laugh. “I thought you said the whisper of it was fine.”
Gall swam in the back of her throat, but she knew it was better not to say her thoughts on his tweaking. Moving forward, she lifted the child and swung him around. Maybe the jokes would keep Jonas from knowing his pa’s rejection.
But the boy stuck his arms over her shoulder toward the stupid man. Poor baby wanted to know his pa’s heart.
“Papa.” The child’s sweet voice sounded strong and sharp, enough so it cut at hers. “Hug.”
“Stop, Miss Jewell.” Lord Welling came behind her and patted his boy’s head.
She pivoted to face him and rotated Jonas so that they could both see the sight of the baron shifting his stance.
Was it fear? No. Something kept him from loving this little boy. What?
Since she’d already earned punishment, pushing the man a bit more couldn’t make things worse. Precious snuggled Jonas then shook her head at the baron. “He won’t break, sir.”
Wide blue eyes seemed to penetrate her skull. The man looked well, sans the alcohol. He raked an index finger through his dark brown hair. “I was never very good with children. I was my father’s only.”
Encouraged by the small smile hovering on his lips, she pattered forward and stuck Jonas against his waistcoat. The boy latched onto the large bone button at the top of the silk beneath his bright white cravat. “Take ‘im, sir.”
Hesitation ripped across his face, firming up a mouth now pressed into a line.
This near, the woodsy scent of him gripped her nose as surely as if he’d stroked it with a feather, but she forced her expression to be as blank as his.
He couldn’t know the silliness of her thoughts or that she’d already begun rethinking her boldness.
His hand whipped backward and for a second, she’d tensed as if the baron would slap her, but then his palm clapped about Jonas’s middle. The grasp was awkward, but it didn’t seem like the boy would fall. In fact, he grabbed fists full of his pa’s waistcoat like he’d seized reins.
Backing away, she headed to the door. “I’ll let you two alone.”
“Jewell, no.” His voice sounded rushed, as did the pounding of his boots along the floor. “A young child needs a woman’s care.”
He deposited Jonas into her hands, popped to the threshold, twisted the doorknob, then stopped. “I’ve some thinking to do about Port Elizabeth. Maybe Jonas will visit. You will have to attend him there, too.”
Before she could ask his meaning, Lord Welling pried the door open and shot through to the other side.
Had she heard him clearly? In case he returned, she plastered on a fake smile and spun the boy to the window. Did the master want Jonas and Precious to visit his mysterious city in Africa? When and for how long?
Staring out at the sea of townhomes, she wondered if this Port Elizabeth looked like London, thick and overcrowded. Maybe it had rolling hills and wide spaces like Charleston. What were the people like? Maybe they were kinder, and she would be away from all the things that put fear in her bosom.
Through the glass, she watched Lord Welling don his top hat and climb into a carriage. He surely didn’t fret another moment about this invitation.
Africa? Didn’t her people come from there? Weren’t her people scooped up from a village and sold like meat at the docks? That’s what her ma had said had happened to hers. Cold sweat moistened her palms. Precious would have to be extra careful and not run too far from the baron’s protection. She could get caught by a slaver and end up in worse straits. The thought of someone like Old Jack owning her made her toes feel numb again, just like in the rain.
She shrugged. The baron’s offer couldn’t be a serious one. It was just something to say to hide his awkwardness with Jonas. Her heart fumed again. It was meanness to taunt the part of her that still dreamed of living and doing on her own.
Jonas kicked and made an impatient pucker with his lips, so she set him down on the thick carpet. He took a few steps then toppled over, laughing.
Precious smiled and tried to focus on his joy, not the sense of hope and dread warring in her lungs. Coming to England from America had given her new privileges and a taste of freedom. What would a visit to Africa bring?
After a day at his solicitor’s, a reward of beefsteak smothered in onions should’ve brought a sense of accomplishment to Welling’s gut. It didn’t. The food went down, as did the crusty bread of the hasty pudding, but he didn’t feel satisfied. No, every bit dropped into the pit of his stomach, like a rock sinking in a pound.
Watching Miss Jewell, with Eliza’s eyes, playing with his son, showing love to his boy, bothered him more than it should. By leaving Jonas for Port Elizabeth, was he again choosing his uncle over his late wife?
And what of the fussy maid? Until Eliza’s death, he’d always thought of Jewell as her baggage, her slave. Yes, that was a nice and tidy way to keep what he’d seen happening to the blacks in West Africa, the slave ships, the breaking of men and women, out of his mind. Those trips with his uncle were supposed to enlighten. What light can be seen in such brutality? Port Elizabeth was down in the southern tip of Africa, so it would be different. Under his control, it had to be.
He poked at his plate. His hands weren’t so clean anymore, but letting the last traces of Eliza go was out of the question. How would he… Jonas get on? Pushing a sliver of meat across the blue Wedgewood dish, he stared at the carmine-red walls. How long he’d sat there wasn’t apparent until he blinked and saw that the candles along the dining room mantle had diminished to a couple of inches. Wiping his mouth, he wrenched out of his chair.
Perhaps, a drink would do. He never allowed himself to indulge in alcohol as a way to end his day, but on the anniversary of Eliza’s death, he gave himself leave to swim in fine brandy. Right now, he felt the same edge, the same rawness in his soul. One glass of brandy would help. It had to.
With his palm still raw from the last time he indulged, he plowed through the door. The muted sound of an argument stopped him.
Whipping to the left, he saw Palmers hovering over Miss Jewell. In the darkness of the hall, he heard the butler’s sharp tone. It sounded accusatory. What had the minx done?
Palmers gripped her by the shoulders. “Your apron was found in the master’s bedchamber. It’s bloody. You have a bruise on your black face. What has occurred, Jewell? Did you attack Lord Welling? Have you forgotten your place?”
The girl straightened her carriage, though her arms vibrated. “No, I haven’t. How could I forget? You remind me daily.”
Something primal stirred inside, seeing Jewell shudder, but he was proud her wits were sharp. Though he felt like throttling the old man for putting angry hands on a woman, Welling marched to him at a steady pace. “Let her go, Palmer. She’s done nothing untoward. I had an accident, and the young lady bandaged me up with her apron.”
Like his fingers had touched fire. Palmer released her. “Sir, I suspected—”
“Not that I would harm a woman, but it never crossed your mind that I might be the villain?”
“Sir, it’s not in your blood to be savage.”
Miss Jewell took her apron from the man. Her head shook side to side, and her almond eyes held daggers. “But it’s in mine, right, Mr. Palmer?”
The old servant straightened, his nose twitching as if smelled a skunk. “Watch your tongue. I am your superior.”
Welling hated the haughty tone of the butler, so like the gentry when he’d introduced Eliza, his American heiress bride. Gall and spittle filled his throat. Jewell and Eliza deserved better. “You are in charge, Palmers, but superiority is a matter of opinion.”
Folding up the stained apron into a neat square, the spitfire stared off into the distance, but her voice sounded deep like she gargled with marbles. “The old bird likes threatening me. Mr. Palmers, don’t you have silver to count, a room to check to see that I’ve cleaned?”
Sarcasm and pride, two things he didn’t believe a slave would possess. What other things was she capable of? Remembering his position, he waved her off. “None of that, Miss Jewell. Wait for me in my study.”
She lifted her chin and swept down the hall. Grace filled her agile limbs. She didn’t shrink like a servant or slave, for that matter. Must be the American part of her aiding her boldness.
Chiding himself for watching her a little too long, he whipped his head back to Palmers and counted the seconds until he heard his study’s door slam. “Why do you think so little of the girl?”
Palmers straightened his onyx livery, his wrinkled palm latching to the jacket. “The bruises to her. She’s a slave, a savage.”
“Seems to me, since you were the one manhandling a woman, there’s a savagery in your blood.” He hardened his countenance and stared at the old bird. “Don’t touch her or any other female like that again.”
The butler nodded, but his mouth twisted as if he sucked lemons. “I hadn’t thought she’d fallen under your special protection. You always seemed so honorable… set in your grief.”
Such wretched thinking. The man leapt from Jewell as an attacker to a doxy. Anger burned inside, making Welling almost ball his fists. Beating a pompous, ancient windbag wouldn’t do. “For you, either the girl is treacherous or I brutalize my bedfellows. Palmers, your mind is more limited than I thought. Go to your chambers, old man, and treat Miss Jewell better. She’s a good worker and very doting to my son. Consider this your only warning.”
“Yes, sir. While you’re here, you’ll see I keep your orders.” The man dipped and plodded down the hall and out of sight.
Standing in the quiet of Firelynn, Wellings let the implied threat soak into his brainbox. What did Miss Jewell experience during the months of his absence? And even if he sent for his son and her upon occasion to visit Port Elizabeth, what would the years without his protection do to her?
With a shake of his head, he stepped into the study, rebuking himself for these cares, until he saw the maid standing in the shadow of Eliza’s portrait. The likeness of Jewell’s eyes to the one of the portrait were unmistakable, except for the shadows of anger crowding the girl’s pupils. No, that intensity matched the Eliza of his dreams.
Jewell folded her hands behind her back. “What do you want of me?”
Closing the door, he thought of what to say. What did he want? Definitely something Jewell and time could never make happen.
He moved closer, taking in the maid’s caramel skin, her straight posture, the sense of pride swirling about her surprising curves. “So you’ve made an enemy of Palmers. With old Jack, that makes two.”
Still fingering her ruined apron like it was prized silk, she lifted her chin. “And you, for denyin’ my freedom. That would make three.”
“I’m no enemy, Jewell. I’d think that the night of the storm would make you recognize this.”
“So you don’t hit me. Or leach after me. Or call me ‘dirt’ to my face. You still begrudge me my freedom. Maybe if you were in town more, you’d have me fetch a pet monkey and chase after you like the other pageboys.”
“I don’t have a pet monkey. And you are no pageboy.”
He looked above her head, away from the girl’s darkening cheeks to Eliza’s wistful smile painted in oils, very unlike the frowns haunting him at night. “If you were free, Miss Jewell, what would you do?”
“I could seek employment. Maybe a family that needed an able worker. One that wouldn’t be so threatened by a dark face. Yes, that would be good.”
“You think Palmers is threatened by you? Old Jack didn’t seem that fearful when you hit him with a rock. No, he seemed riled.”
“What else would you call it? They won’t let me be. They look for evil in everything I do.” She tugged at her tucker, pulling it closer to her throat. “Or they find new ways to humble me. A new family, a new place, would do better.”
Jewell hated his household that much. So like Eliza. He turned his back to her and moved to the sideboard, splaying his fingers about the brandy bottle, but resisted the urge to taste and drown his conscience. “Jonas would miss you.”
“Soon he’d be taken from me. It’s better to do it now. I’ll just be a faded memory.”
He pivoted, his heart pounding with anger. “Memories don’t fade. They find the means to return. Your leaving would be hurtful to my son. Even a bacon-brained idiot can see the strength of his attachment.” He ran a hand through his hair, and softened his tone.” I won’t have him hurt, not when I can prevent it.”
She swiped at her eye and nodded. “Then good night, sir. Don’t tell Palmers I’m no longer free. Then, he’ll really be evil, very cruel with his gloating.”
As she moved past him, he caught her arm. She flinched then stopped. “Yes, sir?”
He’d seen her tense like this before but thought it was his brandy-infused breath. She’d suffered something, but that mystery couldn’t be solved now. He’d come to a decision, one she needed to hear. “I’m not done.” Letting go of her, he pointed to the sofa. “Have a seat.”
Her beautiful eyes grew large. She backed up to the flowery tufted cushions, but did not sit.
He moved his hand to encourage her to sit, lowering his fingers as if he were leading musicians.
She jutted out her chin and then sank to the edge as if the puffy thing would bite her. “Yes, sir.”
“I’m going to take Jonas to South Africa with me. You’re right about him needing to be more entwined in his father’s life.”
A smile formed on her full lips. “That’s very good.”
“But, he can only come if you travel with him too.”
Her mystical eyes squinted before she looked down at the floor. “I’ll try to prepare him for the voyage. I know journeyin’ by boat can be terrible.”
She didn’t understand, and he needed her to. He stooped beside her. “No, Miss Jewel. You will come with us and live in Port Elizabeth. How do you feel about that?”
She picked at her apron, and her voice sounded low and humbled. “What does an owner’s request mean to a possession? What is it you wish to hear?”
Perhaps it was selfish, but he’d hoped she would sound happy about this, maybe even display a little gratitude. Those few times Eliza was happy, her irises lit like a candle, and her eyes danced.
No sparkle filled the maid’s. They might’ve even held tears.
Jewell stood and curtsied. “Goodnight, Lord Welling.”
Giving her freedom wasn’t something he had prepared to do, and it made the paperwork in his jacket feel small, inconsequential. Yet, he wasn’t forsaking his influence over the willful girl. “Wait, we are not done.”
She released the doorknob and spun back to him. Her arms folded about her, and she heaved out a sigh. “I’m ready for my punishment.”
“For escaping.’” The girl came closer, her fingers clutching the edge of her emerald bodice. “There’s no cane in here, but the poker’ll do.” She gulped and shut her eyes, and turned her backside to him. “Wrap your jacket about it. That’ll leave no marks.”
Studying the curves of her pushed punishment far from his mind. No, a drunken vision of holding fire against his chest near the mantel stirred. He raked at his temples. “Jewell, no. Please face me.”
She whirled around with fists levied. “Then what do you want?”
He pulled from his jacket the paperwork he’d gotten from his solicitor and draped it over her wrists. “Can you read, Miss Jewel?
The girl glared at him, neither nodding nor shaking her head, but the almond eyes held flames, and they bemused his soul.
Nothing meant more in that moment than seeing a glimpse of Eliza alive in Jewell. Memories of a fast courtship and an inferno of arguments and loving swept through him, fixing his boots to the floor, pinning his gaze. He blinked and remembered he was in Firelynn with his wife’s maid, not Eliza.
He covered the ache with a cough. “These were to give you some papers to satisfy you here, in London, but I think these are exactly what you need to begin a new adventure.”
Precious held her breath. The man offered her papers to dismiss her. Tossed out with no position to go to. How would she get on?
“Look at the papers, Jewell.”
Her arms trembled beneath her thick cuffs and by sheer will she chased the vibrations away. She’d show him and Old Jack and Mr. Palmer. Precious Jewell would make her own way, or die in the tryin’.
His brows furrowed. “Jewell, sit and read the paper. That’s an order.”
Not sure of what to make of anything, she half-pivoted and again eased onto the edge of the thick cushions. Servants weren’t to sit in these places for entertaining, and never someone like her.
He took the pages and waved them before her face. “Read it aloud.”
The scrawl appeared foreign, but there were words that she could make out. Servant, Five Years. “I don’t understand.”
He paced back and forth as if he searched for something to explain these papers. Maybe he couldn’t make sense of them either.
Wrenching his neck, he stopped and planted a few feet from her. “These documents, if you place your mark next to mine, will make you an indentured servant. Immediately, you will no longer be a slave. After five years of faithful service, you will be free.”
His words stung her ears. What did he mean? And why five years? “How is this free?”
Folding his arms behind his back, he stopped. Tall and warrior-like, he seemed to struggle. Maybe this fanciful notion of being free was too much for him, too. He cleared his throat. “This is the means to honor Eliza’s wishes with permanent legal freedom. You’ll have earned a tidy sum during your service, so that you have the means to settle where you like, and I will have assured consistency for Jonas.”
The emotion running through her veins, making her icy fingertips go fully numb, wasn’t gratitude. He didn’t trust her. She clutched the papers to her bosom. “I suppose that I should be happy.”
“You are all Jonas and I have left of his mother. My work to build a colony in Port Elizabeth will be grueling. I need to know that he is loved and kept safe, daily.”
Why was the man so thick? She balled up her ruined apron, clutching the coins sewn inside. “I could serve as a free woman.”
A smirk settled again on his face, but his eyes held no joke. “Free, you could leave us, and what would that do to him? I am not good with children. And there’s nothing like a little inducement to bring out the best.”
That didn’t make any sense. She held her shocked self as if she were freezing. “I’d be a good worker, free. You know I do good work.”
“Miss Jewell, you attempted to run the last time we were in this room. I won’t have the leisure of retrieving you in Africa. No. I need to ensure your loyalty. You wanted papers, didn’t you? This is my bargain.”
She jumped to her feet and pressed toward the door. Opening it, she wanted to be out his sight as she tried to decipher the words on the page. “If that is all, sir.”
He plodded ahead of her and elbowed the door closed. His mighty shoulders blocked her path. “I need an answer now. You leave this room without a signature then you will be a slave, my slave always. And when I am gone, Palmers will control your fate. It will be difficult to get new employ without these.”
Taunting her, he waved the papers. “Or maybe Old Jack will help. He seemed very interested in your position. Be sensible. Take my bargain.”
The man had all the power, but didn’t he have it whether she signed the documents or not?
“Why these?” Tears of frustration welled, but she swallowed them and crunched up the papers in her hand. “Why not just take me to Port Elizabeth, the horrid place where your people put mine in chains and began my way as a savage?”
“I’m not responsible for slavery, but I intend to clear up the conditions put in place by the English, Dutch, French, all the civilized societies that took from Africa. So I’ll start my penance for my people by ending my tenure as a slaver.”
“This is just a change in title. You control my fate here and there. Nothin’ substitutes for havin’ my own say.”
His chuckles were low and easy, but his stare sliced through her. “It’s never that easy. And who truly has their own say, as you put it? No, we hope for the best in our circumstances.”
“So, signing these papers will make you feel better?”
“I just want a servant, one dedicated to happiness of my heir. I don’t want you jumping when I enter a room. And, though your form is pleasing, I’d rather not have it turned to me, expecting a lashing.”
Her cheeks, even the bruised one, felt hot but his gaze did not break. “Jewell, I am leading the colonists to make peace with the blacks and the small communities surrounding Port Elizabeth. I can’t do that with doubts about Jonas’s care and his safety.”
Sliding the papers from her, he walked over to his desk and whipped out a bottle of ink, a sharp quill, and a blotter. Unfurling the parchment, he smoothed it onto the mahogany surface of his writing desk. “Come on, Miss Jewel. This is right.”
How could it be, when he’d taken her excuses away? He’d thought about this, plotted it out in a matter of a few days. She took the quill from his hand, sliding the soft feather over her knuckles. “This will set me free in five years? I have your word on it?”
He nodded and pushed the papers closer to her. “Yes, five years and your service will be done. Then you will be free and have earned enough money to think of marrying or returning to England, or even settling in Port Elizabeth. Who knows? Some fellow there may catch your eye. You may not want to leave.”
It wasn’t that easy. Being pushed to sign things she could barely read, sucking in promises of some distant five years, hurt her heart. She put the quill down and stared at the smirk on his face. “So you’ve planned my future. You’re acting more like an American master every day. Did you pick the buck I’m to breed with, too?”
With wide eyes, he tapped his lips then turned from her and went and stood near Eliza’s picture. “My baroness wanted you freed. I’m giving you a mechanism that does so, but puts her son’s happiness first. In five years, he’ll be breeched, out of pinafores and in trousers. His need for a substitute mother will have diminished.”
Mother to Jonas? What was the man thinking? She shook her head.
A sigh steamed out of the baron. “I’d like to think Eliza left this world in peace, knowing you’d protect her babe. She knew I would be too busy for the job. We owe this to Eliza.”
Poor Eliza Marsdale. She’d loved every minute of carrying the boy in her womb. The notion of the babe gave her such pleasure. Didn’t they both cry at the wiggle of Eliza’s tummy at his quickening? She was good, and always doting and lenient with Precious. A mumble of yes left her lips, but that wasn’t good enough. She cleared her throat. “I do owe her, sir. Not you. Free me, and I will serve Jonas and you.”
“I haven’t in me to trust like that. You could change your mind and leave me.”
His large blue eyes captured her and held her in place. She couldn’t breathe or cede to his notions. Finally, she looked down to the polished mahogany flooring and pushed her slipper back and forth. “Miss Eliza trusted me, confided in me, thought me good enough to be freed. Wouldn’t you want to be free too?”
“Jonas has chosen you, Jewell. I’ve heard him call you Mama on more than one occasion. Shall you allow your stubborn spirit to deny Eliza’s joy?”
He’d spied her and Jonas before today? When? And was she so wrapped up in loving the boy she hadn’t noticed? The baron’s tone didn’t sound cocky, as it had before. No, it bore hints of sadness, maybe even defeat. She lifted her head and caught a glimpse of him, staring and stiffening his jaw. He wasn’t use to pleading, but why did he need this?
Her chest constricted, and she felt for the quill. “You win.”
Pushing fear and doubt to the back of her mind, she put her mark on the documents, where he had pointed. “What now?”
His hand, warm and strong, closed about hers. The odd mixture of his woodsy scent and fresh linen filled her nostrils. “This is for the best,” he said. Taking the quill, he put his elegant signature above hers on both papers then offered her one page. “Keep this. The other goes to my solicitor. Now, off to bed. In the morn, pack and get Jonas ready. We leave at week’s end.”
She clutched the parchment, and wrapped it in her apron. “Yes, master.”
“It’s Welling, Gareth Conroy, the third Lord Welling.”
She backed away. “Yes, master.” On the other side of the door, she took a whole breath. She was sort of free, but what did that mean in this Port Elizabeth place?
She started moving her slippers against the treads and down to her room when a tiny cry sounded. Jonas?
Pivoting, she decided to check on him and climbed the stairs to the second level. When she passed the hall mirror, she stopped and peered at her frozen cheeks, her poked- out lips. Though her face still held a dark bruise, it did nothing to draw attention from the numbness straining her face. She had papers, but only as part of a bad bargain. What would become of her? Would she ever know freedom?
Pulling off her mobcap, she let her shiny braids fall near her chin and rubbed at her temples. Determination set in her jaw and filled her lungs with heat. It didn’t matter what Lord Welling or whatever he called himself today said, or even what this paper held. She was free as soon as her foot stepped on the shores of Port Elizabeth. She’d show him. She’d show them all.
The End of This Episode. Tune in For Episode II. Learn more at VanessaRiley.com
Episode II of The Bargain
Length: 8 Chapters (25,000 words)
Summary: Precious Jewell’s Misadventures at Sea Heading to Port Elizabeth
Status: Available for pre-order/order.
The vastness of the cresting ocean isn’t enough to drown Precious Jewell’s high spirits or her dreams of doing for herself, but a false move and an old nightmare have placed her in more jeopardy, Lord Welling’s bedchamber.
Captaining his schooner to Port Elizabeth was his only refuge, until his ship was invaded by land lovers, his son and his challenging caregiver. Perhaps, Miss Jewell’s vivacity and audacity are just what he needs to quell rebellion amongst his crew and his heart. Get The Bargain II.
An Excerpt from Episode II:
Closing the door, Precious filled her lungs again. The cedar of the wood and the salt in the air already felt good, cleansing. Easing her way, with just moonlight as her guide, she found the ladder that led to the deck. Her eyes adjusted well to the night. They always had, more so now when she needed to see evil coming her way.
For a few seconds, she put her hand on the rung. It didn’t bite. It didn’t latch hold of her, or scream for someone to catch her. She took another quick breath. Everything would be all right.
Cinching up her muslin robe, she raised her head to the purpled bits of sky above. The peace of it called to her. If she stayed in the shadows, all would be well. Slowly, she took hold of the springy wood again and eased her way up. This part of the deck was empty. Maybe all the men Mrs. Narvel warned of were tucked into their hammocks, too. Feeling more confident, Precious pushed to the railing.
The water gleamed, reflecting distant stars. Hints of scarlet peaked within ribbons of ebony. The sky was beautiful. A new shiver, one of excitement, traveled up her arms.
But beyond, a good forty feet, was a wall of ebony. Nothing could be seen beyond it. She reached out a hand and tried to measure it between her thumb and index finger, but how could she size infinity?
The heavy voice sent a different vibration through her. She startled and clutched the rail.
“Miss Jewell, do you remember my orders? Woman, what am I going to do with you?”
Another emotion filled her, a mix of vexation and a desire to defend herself from being caught doing something naughty. She spun around.
Lord Welling stood a few paces away, shaking his head at her. His white shirt was open, exposing a few tuffs of black hair. His simple dark breeches blended into the night, silhouetting his thick form. There was a power about him now that she hadn’t seen in London. Maybe it was hidden under the fancy ties and jackets.
Closing the distance between them, he folded his arms. “I thought I told you not to come out of your cabin. Did I not make it clear? Did I need to specify timeframes?”
He stood too close. Even in the onyx night, the stars and the lantern light in his hand made his eyes wide, deep blue, and menacing.
Willing her knees to still, she had to keep reminding herself that a servant didn’t get whipped like an enslaved person, and, for all Lord Welling’s bluster, he’d never tried to take a branch to her. She lifted her chin. “It’s stuffy down there. I didn’t think it’d hurt nothing. You’re selfish for keeping it from me.”
Dimple popping, he pounded his skull. “Mouse, scurry back to your quarters before you’re caught by a very large rat.”
His eyes were clear, untainted by alcohol. Why did that worry her? Could she handle him, sharp, with all his mind working?
Well, she’d try. She could stand up for her opinions just like Palmers or any other worker did. With a hand on her hip, she sharpened her tone. “Rats don’t go after mice. If you’d ever spent time in fields, you’d know that.”
“Hungry rats will devour anything.” His head went sidelong as his gaze raked over her. “Barefoot, you’d make an easy meal. A charming one, but an easy one.”
She refused to let her hand move to the belt of her robe. Something about letting him know his warnings trembled her bones didn’t seem right. Instead, she pivoted back toward the ocean. “I’m not done getting air. I’ll be a deck-side luncheon.”
Chuckling, he plodded closer. “Jewell, you’re no coward. I’ll give you that.”
She hid a sigh of relief in a deep taste of salted air. “The breeze feels so good. And the night sky, I miss a night’s sky.”
“Well, let’s hope the red goes away before dawn. Like a red morn that ever yet betokened, Wreck to the seaman, tempest to the field, Sorrow to the shepherds, woe unto the birds, Gusts and foul flaws to herdsmen and to herds.”
She swiveled and looked at his face; clean-shaven, speaking of mystical things, with his hair full out lifting in the wind. He was handsome if you like the sort, but he was full of nonsense, speaking nonsense.
A wave crashed against the hull, making her almost reach for him to steady herself. Forcing her hand to her side, she straightened her shoulders. Even if it got rocky, she’d stand her ground a little longer, just to prove her point.
“I can tell by the cross look on your face that you are not partial to Shakespeare. Then try this one. Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky in the morn, sailor be warned.”
The wind picked up her mobcap and set it sailing. He lunged and caught it, tucking it in his waistband. “You’ve had enough wind, Jewell. Let me escort you back below.” He lifted his palm to her.
With braids dropping, curling to her neck, she stared at him, not wanting to move, not wanting to go back to the cabin. A small portion of her mind wanted him to speak more nonsense, to calm the edge in her spirit. “I haven’t seen you drinking. We can smell rum from our room.”
“No, ma’am, not out here in the open ocean.” He trudged to the thick wood rail and clasped it in his big hands. “No, God has control out here, and I need to be able to hear Him. Can’t do that cast to the winds.”
Now he spewed a different set of nonsense. Precious didn’t think the baron was religious. She squinted at him and looked out at the wall of blackness surrounding the ship. “I don’t understand.”
“Oh, Jewell, I learned the hard way long ago about being too cocky, too full of my own power out here on the seas. That’s wrong. God can strike at any moment, and you can lose everything if you’re not paying attention.”
There was sadness, a grieving music, to his tone, and it made her sad, pulling at her heart. She shook her head to clear it, and just stood near him, breathing in and out, looking at waves.
“You’ve had enough, my dear. I have to finish my rounds.” He pivoted and took three long steps away. “Jewell, let me take you to your cabin.”
“Why do you call me ‘Jewell’?”
He lowered his well-muscled arm. “It’s what we British do. Addressing by a surname is a sign of respect for one’s heritage.”
The boat rocked, the waves hitting below, shoving the boat like one of Jonas’s blocks. It made her reach backward and clutch the rail.
He extended his arm again. “Time for play is done, Jewell. You need to go below. The next few hours of ocean are going to be bumpy.
“I don’t have a surname. Precious Jewell is my only name.”
His clear eyes sharpened, and he stepped even closer. His palm went to her chin, gently, lifting and angling it in the moonlight. “Jewell’s not a family name? Then who is your father?”
Stiffening, she stepped away from him. Now the railing pressed into her back, preventing escape. “I think I am ready to go below, but I can get there myself. Can I have my cap?”
“Mouse, I thought you had courage. You’re going to let me continually frighten you.” His chuckles, his patronizing laughter, burnt her ears. “I suppose that what’s to be expected from a mouse.”
The ocean pushed her forward, flinging her into him. He caught her and held her close. She could feel his heart thudding through her muslin nightgown. She pressed on his chest, but he didn’t let go.
“Precious Jewell,” huskiness set in his voice, “it’s getting rough out here.”
Tucking a braid from her eye, he released her. His breathing seemed labored, like he struggled for air. “Come along, Miss Precious.” He rubbed at his brow, then clasped her arm and dragged her a bit. “You are going back to your cabin now. Work harder at listening. One of my crew might have found you out here, dressed in just muslin.”
She couldn’t take him forcing her to move any more than she could hearing him laughing at her, always sounding as if his thoughts were faster than hers. Anger pumping in her veins, she spun free of his arm.
But the ship shuttered.
Her feet went one way, her body the other. In an instant, she was dangling over the rail.
Don’t miss Episode II.
For More Information about purchasing go to www.VanessaRiley.com.
In Episode III:
Precious Jewell has lived a life filled with disappointments, and it has caused her to wrestle with her beliefs. Port Elizabeth was meant to be a new beginning, not another chance to dance with death. With her eyes clouded in confusion, how can she protect young Jonas or even her new friend Mrs. Narvel? The guilt of kissing Eliza’s husband and marveling at the black warriors who’ve attacked the colonists is gnawing at her, making her doubt her strength. What God is doing? Well, Precious is determined to figure things out and do what’s best, even if it means forgetting her attraction to Lord Welling. Yet, will the man let her?
Gareth Conroy has exposed his young heir, a pregnant woman, and his late wife’s feisty maid to the dangers of Port Elizabeth. He must make things right, but what is that: admitting defeat and returning to London, staying and committing to a loveless marriage of convenience, or negotiating with Xhosa, a people set on the colonist’s destruction?
Whatever his path, there is one thing he’s not ready to do. He’s not letting the memory of Precious in his arms fade.
Episode III is available now!
Episode IV of The Bargain
Length: 10 Chapters (25,000 words)
Summary: Saving The Colony And A Soul
Status: Coming November 2015.
In Episode IV:
Time is running out for Port Elizabeth. A missing chief and his daughter, tensions among frightened colonists, and the trembling of a difficult labor, threaten to break the fragile bonds of its survival.
Precious Jewell will do what is right to protect those she cares for, even for the man she won’t admit to needing.
For Gareth Conroy, death doesn’t matter anymore, and he purposes that his spilt blood will bring salvation for the colony, but will he realize too late that no single man of flesh and blood can bring redemption?
Will the burgeoning hope of two stubborn, wounded souls fray or smolder in this exciting conclusion of The Bargain?
Don’t miss the exciting conclusion. Join my to stay informed.
[_I enjoyed writing The Bargain because I dream of Port Elizabeth, a burgeoning colony where all men and women had the opportunity to make their claim and determine their own fates. These stories will showcase a world of intrigue and romance, somewhere everyone can hopefully find a character to identify with as the colonists and Xhosa battle for their ideas and the love which renews and gives life. _]
[_Stay in touch. Sign up at www.vanessariley.com for my newsletter. You’ll be the first to know about upcoming releases, and maybe even win a sneak peek. _]
Thank so much for giving this book a read.
Here are my notes:
Slavery in England
The emancipation of slaves in England preceded America by thirty years and freedom was won by legal court cases not bullets.
Somerset v Stewart (1772) is a famous case which established the precedence for the rights of slaves in England. The English Court of King’s Bench, led by Lord Mansfield, decided that slavery was unsupported by the common law of England and Wales. His ruling:
“The state of slavery is of such a nature that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political, but only by positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasions, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory. It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged.”
E. Neville William, The Eighteenth-Century Constitution: 1688-1815, pp: 387-388.
The Slavery Abolition Act 1833 was an act of Parliament which abolished slavery throughout the British Empire. A fund of $20 Million Pound Sterling was set up to compensate slave owners. Many of the highest society families were compensated for losing their slaves.
This act did exempt the territories in the possession of the East India Company, the Island of Ceylon, and the Island of Saint Helena. In 1843, the exceptions were eliminated.
[* The Regency*] – The Regency is a period of history from 1811-1825 (sometimes expanded to 1795-1837) in England. It takes its name from the Prince Regent who ruled in his father’s stead when the king suffered mental illness. The Regency is known for manners, architecture, and elegance. Jane Austen wrote her famous novel, Pride and Prejudice (1813), about characters living during the Regency.
England is a country in Europe. London is the capital city of England.
[* Image of England from a copper engraved map created by William Darton in 1810.*]
[* Port Elizabeth *]was a town founded in 1820 at the tip of South Africa. The British settlement was an attempt to strengthen England’s hold on the Cape Colony and to be buffer from the Xhosa.
Xhosa – A proud warrior people driven to defend their land and cattle-herding way of life from settlers expanding the boundaries of the Cape Colony.
Image of South Africa from a copper engraved map created by John Dower in 1835.
[* Abigail*] – A lady’s maid.
[*Soiree *]– An evening party.
[*Bacon-brained *]– A term meaning foolish or stupid.
[*Black *]– A description of a black person or an African.
[*Black Harriot *]– A famous prostitute stolen from Africa, then brought to England by a Jamaican planter who died, leaving her without means. She turned to harlotry to earn a living. Many members of the House of Lords became her clients. She is described as tall, genteel, and alluring, with a degree of politeness.
[*Blackamoor *]– A dark-skinned person.
[*Bombazine *]– Fabric of twilled or corded cloth made of silk and wool or cotton and wool. Usually the material was dyed black and used to create mourning clothes.
[*Breeched *]– The custom of a young boy no longer wearing pinafores and now donning breeches. This occurs about age six.
[*Breeches *]– Short, close-fitting pants for men, which fastened just below the knees and were worn with stockings.
[*Caning *]– A beating typically on the buttocks for naughty behavior.
[*Compromise *]– To compromise a reputation is to ruin or cast aspersions on someone’s character by catching them with the wrong people, being alone with someone who wasn’t a relative at night, or being caught doing something wrong. During the Regency, gentlemen were often forced to marry women they had compromised.
[*Dray *]– Wagon.
[*Footpads *]– Thieves or muggers in the streets of London.
Greatcoat – A big outdoor overcoat for men.
[*Mews *]– A row of stables in London for keeping horses.
[*Pelisse *]- An outdoor coat for women that is worn over a dress.
[*Quizzing Glass *]– An optical device, similar to a monocle, typically worn on a chain. The wearer might use the quizzing glass to look down upon people.
[*Reticule *]– A cloth purse made like a bag that had a drawstring closure.
[*Season *]– One of the largest social periods for high society in London. During this time, a lady attended a variety of balls and soirees to meet potential mates.
[*Sideboard *]– A low piece of furniture the height of a writing desk which housed spirits.
[*Ton *]– Pronounced tone, the ton was a high class in society during the Regency era.
Shy, nearsighted caregiver, Gaia Telfair always wondered why her father treated her a little differently than her siblings, but she never guessed she couldn’t claim his love because of a family secret, her illicit birth. With everything she knows to be true evaporating before her spectacles, can the mulatto passing for white survive being exposed and shunned by the powerful duke who has taken an interest in her?
Ex-warrior, William St. Landon, the Duke of Cheshire, will do anything to protect his mute daughter from his late wife’s scandals. With a blackmailer at large, hiding in a small village near the cliffs of Devonshire seems the best option, particularly since he can gain help from the talented Miss Telfair, who has the ability to help children learn to speak. If only he could do a better job at shielding his heart from the young lady, whose honest hazel eyes see through his jests as her tender lips challenge his desire to remain a single man.
[_Unmasked Heart _]is the first Challenge of the Soul Regency novel.
Excerpt from Unmasked Heart: The Truth
Her father sat near Sarah. Nodding his clean-shaven face, his long ash-blonde sideburns curling to his ears, he waved her forward. “Come in, Gaia.”
She hadn’t expected him to be in here. He usually took refuge in his study on the far side of the house; that is, if he made it out of bed. This couldn’t be good.
Gaia swallowed and almost clasped the pianoforte tucked in the curved niche at the threshold. Maybe she could lean against it to regain her composure.
Sarah smiled at her before lowering her gaze. She motioned for Gaia to cross the paisley rug framing the sitting area close to the fireplace. “We need to speak with you.”
“Does this mean I can’t have the fabric? You can see I’m much grown.” She tugged at the snug lines of her bodice.
His lips flattened to a line. “Your mother and I have decided you should be aware of all your responsibilities.”
“My responsibilities?” At this, she slipped onto the couch. Why did she have the feeling her cheeks would soon color the same shade of burgundy as the sturdy seat?
Sarah tugged upon her treasured coral necklace then started working embroidery thread from the coiled jute basket near her caned chair. Her gaze seemed to be wandering as her tapping foot lifted her cream-and-rose skirt. “You know your father’s estate is entailed to the males of the Telfair?”
“Yes, Timothy will inherit everything,” Father coughed. His lungs raged as if he were coming down with another cold, the third this year. “You’ve made much progress with him. If you continue to keep him, I think he’ll be prepared to manage Chevron Manor.”
She stopped her fingers from twitching and then squinted at her unusually silent stepmother. Her hands shook as she passed a needle through a snowy handkerchief. Something definitely was amiss. “Sarah, Father, I don’t understand.”
“We, your mother and I, feel you should be his permanent companion.”
“Permanent?” Gaia clutched the arm of the sofa, her nails denting the swell of the cushioning.
Sarah raised her head. Her mouth opened and closed and opened again as her voice went from non-existent to low. “You… will be mistress of Chevron, making sure that he runs things well. My Timothy will always need supervision.”
Gaia bounced to her feet and headed for the fireplace. Clasping the dark poker, she stoked the low flame and allowed the heat to dry the water leaking from her eyes. “But what of my hopes?”
Father wheezed, and he pounded the arm of his chair. “You’ve never been inclined to anything but books. And this will make sure that your sisters and mother will be taken care of always.”
“My mother is dead.” Gaia spun around and pointed to her stepmother. “This is her work. She’s only worried about herself.”
“Don’t talk to her like that.” His feeble fingers gripped the woman’s hand. “And she’s a good woman, unlike…”
“No, dear,” Sarah wiped her leaky eyes. “You see she does not wish it.”
Father left his chair and took the poker from Gaia’s tight fingers. His clammy palms contrasted the blackness of the implement. “If my cousins press that Timothy is unfit, or they dupe his easy mind, all the family will be in jeopardy. I’m convinced your care will keep things well. You’re levelheaded. You will be the guardian of this manor. That’s a worthy calling for you.”
With the back of her hand, Gaia swiped at her cheek. The lenses of her spectacles steamed. “Abandon my dreams? Don’t you think I want to marry?”
Father guffawed, placed the poker by the fire’s grate, and twisted the fob of his pocket watch. “It’s not possible. You’ve never had any inclination.”
Why wasn’t it possible? She squinted at his creasing forehead. “I want to. In fact, I want to marry Mr. Elliot Whimple.”
“You want your cousin’s leavings?” Father chuckled. “I can tell you now, Whimple is not looking for a bluestocking. We’re even too poor for your sister’s pretty face to catch anything. She’ll be home on Friday with no offer.”
No marriage for Julia. She must be crushed. Tears for her slipped down Gaia’s chin.
“Mr. Telfair, she’s in love,” Sarah put down her needlework and approached. Her almond eyes scanned up and down. “I suspect she’s loved him for a long time.”
Father moved toward the boxy pianoforte, his spindle legs drifting. “I wasn’t aware, but it is of no consequence. The man doesn’t look at you that way. Though he’s good to his brother’s household, I see him going to study in London. That’s too far to watch over Timothy.”
“I need a chance to convince him. If he could like me, I’m sure he will help in my brother’s care.”
He leaned on the instrument. “I can’t be at peace if all my children are tossed to the streets. You owe this to me, to all the Telfairs.”
Owe? “What do you mean, Father?”
“Don’t, Mr. Telfair. She doesn’t need to know. Gaia can be reasoned with without saying anything more.”
The warning sent a chill down Gaia’s spine, but she had to know. “Tell me why I owe my flesh and blood.”
Father took her hand and pulled it to his pale face. “Do you think it’s possible that fair Telfair blood could produce this?”
Her heart stopped, slamming against her ribs. “My mother’s Spanish roots have browned my skin. That’s what you’ve always said.”
He dropped her palm as his head shook. “It was a lie to cover my first wife’s harlotry. You’re a Telfair because I claimed you.”
Gaia couldn’t breathe. She crumbled to the floor. Hot tears drenched her face as she wished for a hole to break open and swallow her. “A mistake. Please, say this is a mistake.”
The man whom she’d called father, whom she’d worshipped, shook his head again.
She lifted a hand to grasp his shoe but stopped, missing the black leather.
Was this why she’d always felt as if she could never grasp a hold of his love? Is this why he treated her a little differently from the rest? “Then who am I? Whose am I?”
“Some traveling bard, some African poet who captivated her whilst I travelled. When you came out so close to white, with so little color, the ruse was borne; no scandal would befall my name. I’m just lucky you weren’t a boy. Then, Chevron would fall to a mulatto. How would the Telfair line handle that tragedy?”
She waved her fingers, studying the light pigment coloring her skin. Mulatto. All this time she’d blamed her flesh on fate or heritage, not lust. She tugged at her elbows, feeling dirty. Glancing at him between tears, she silently begged for him to say it didn’t matter, that he loved her still. “Father?”
With a grimace painting his silent mouth, he buttoned his waistcoat. “I’m going to lie down. Talk to her, Sarah; make her understand.”
Desperate, Gaia’s hand rose this time, but his back was to her in a blink as he plodded from the room. Her fingers felt cold and numb as they sank onto the thin rug. The breath in her lungs burned. Adultery, not a Telfair by blood – these thoughts smashed against her skull.
Sarah knelt beside her and stroked her back. “I’m so sorry. You should never have known.”
Gaia shook her head and pulled away. “No more lies.”
“Please, I’m not the enemy.”
Rearing up, she caught the woman’s beady gaze. “You want me to believe you don’t want the almost-bastard to be a servant to Timothy? Would you wish one of your children be given this sentence, to become a governess to their own flesh and blood? Well, at least they can claim to be flesh and blood to Timothy.”
Sarah reached again and wiped tears from Gaia’s cheek then opened her arms wide. “You are his sister. You love him so. This is no failing of yours.”
At first, Gaia fell into the woman’s sturdy embrace, then she stiffened and pulled away. She needed to flee, to let her brain make sense of the emotions whipping inside. Her slippers started moving. “I must go.”
Gaia shook her head and backed to the threshold. “Why? Is there something else you have to disclose to steal the rest of my dreams?”
Without a thought for a bonnet or coat, she rushed down the hall and out the front door.
Wham! She slammed into a man in fancy, sky-blue livery. The servant was tall and black. Black, like some part inside of her. Her eyes fixed on his bronze skin and wouldn’t let go.
“Miss? I’ve come from Ontredale. Are you well, miss? You look pale enough to faint.”
Not pale enough; never would be. “Sorry.” She ducked her eyes and sidestepped him.
“Ma’am, I bear a note—”
“You want a Telfair. They are inside.” She started running and kept going until not a cobble of Chevron Manor could be seen. Salty drops stung and blurred each step. She strode forward, deeper into the welcoming woods. A hint of spring blooms stroked her nose, but the streaks lining her wet face obscured them.
A fleeting thought to go to Seren’s crossed Gaia’s mind, but she couldn’t let her friend see her like this. She was even more pitiful than normal. Would Seren even want to be her friend if the truth of her birth became known? “God, I have no hope.”
As if her slippers bore a mind of their own, they led Gaia back to her special place. Heather grasses and lousewort danced about her mighty oak, like there were something to celebrate. Her dance card was now filled with pity. Her fortunes forever changed. Nothing good ever changed for Gaia. “God, spin back time. Let me be ignorant again – ignorant and meek and unnoticed. I won’t complain this time.”
Anything was better than what she was, a secret bastard. If not for the covering lies of the Telfairs, she would be a by-blow. She studied her shaking hands. If she’d been dark like the servant she’d collided with, would she have been tossed away?
Making a fist, she beat against her oak. The snickers of her friends, did they know, too? How many sly remarks were actually hints at her mother’s infidelity? The village was small. Gossip burned like a candle’s wick, bright and fast.
Did it matter with white and black, all trapped inside her limbs? Her stomach rolled. Nausea flooded her lungs. She lunged away, dropped to her knees, and let her breakfast flow out. Maybe the ugly truth could drain away too.
Wiping her mouth, she crawled back to her oak and set her wrist against a thick tree root. Her skin was light like butter, compared to the bark. The skin was almost like the Telfairs’, just a little tan, a little darker. Not good enough.
She wasn’t good enough.
Now she knew she could never be good enough.
Envy of her sisters’ fair, pretty skin, had it not always wrestled in her bosom? The English world said the lighter the complexion, the more genteel and the more one would be held in esteem.
But she should have envied their blood instead. They knew with certitude who their father was. Julia, the twins, each had a future that could include love. What did Gaia have?
She stood and wiped her hands against her skirt. The grass stains and dusting of dirt left her palms, but the off-white color of her skin remained. She brushed her hands again and again against the fabric, but the truth wouldn’t disappear.
A light wind whipped the boughs of her tree, as if calling her for an embrace. Tripping over the gnarled root, she fell against the rough bark. Arms stretched wide, she held onto the trunk. Moss cushioned her cheek while the rustle of crunching leaves sounded like a hush, as if the oak knew her pain and tried to stop her tears.
More crackling of leaves made her lift her chin, but the strong sun shining through the jade canopy of leaves blinded her. She clutched the scarred bark with trembling fingers, and hoped whoever was near didn’t see her. No one should witness her shame.
A white handkerchief waved near her forehead.
Gaia surrendered to the fact that she’d been discovered. Slowly, she stood, smoothed her wrinkled bodice, and turned. Nothing mattered any more, not even the opinion of a stranger. Shame mingling with tears, she took the fine lawn cloth from the man who’d caught her Sunday, praying aloud about Elliott.
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Coming to London has given Precious Jewell a taste of freedom, and she will do anything, bear anything, to keep it. Defying her master is at the top of her mind, and she won’t let his unnerving charm sway her. Yet, will her restored courage lead her to forsake a debt owed to the grave and a child who is as dear to her as her own flesh? Gareth Conroy, the third Baron Welling, can neither abandon his upcoming duty to lead the fledgling colony of Port Elizabeth, South Africa nor find the strength to be a good father to his heir. Every look at the boy reminds him of the loss of his wife. Guilt over her death plagues his sleep, particularly when he returns to London. Perhaps the spirit and fine eyes of her lady’s maid, Precious Jewell, might offer the beleaguered baron a new reason to dream. The Bargain is a serialized story or soap opera told in episodes. Each episode averages from three to eight chapters, about 15,000 to 30,000 words. Each episode resolves one issue. Emotional cliffhangers may be offered, but the plot, the action of the episode, will be complete in resolving the main issue. My promise to you is that the action will be compelling, and I will tell you in the forward the length of the episode. This episode, Episode I, is four chapters long, 15,000 words. Enjoy these Regency Tales set in South Africa.--VR The Bargain is the first Port Elizabeth Regency Tale. Episode 1: A Bargain to Be Free