Sea of Ruin – Pam Godwin

Charleston. To anyone settling here, it was a dazzling frontier of beauty and opportunity. Its denizens comprised of wealthy planters sailing from the English colony of Barbados and the Yamasee natives fighting to destroy the white invaders. Then there was me, the bastard daughter of noble blood, willing to do anything to escape this life. Though I was born here fourteen years ago, I had no interest in the land or its wars. I longed for the sea, to feel the deck rocking beneath my feet, to hear the wind drumming against sailcloth, and to wear salt and spume upon my tattered sleeves. My mother, however, didn’t care a whit about what I wanted. “Stop fidgeting.” She pried my clenched fingers from the rib-crushing bodice of my gown. Her scowl distorted the stately lines of a face that had once been the envy of high society. Her eyes, cerulean blue like mine, simmered with resentment as she scrutinized the chintz monstrosity she forced me to wear. “Can I remove the pannier? Please, Mother?” I yanked at the cumbersome undergarment, my voice pitching to a whine. “God rot it, I can’t move!” The hidden wire hoops sat on my hips like bread baskets on a pack animal. I pivoted left to right, taking up three times as much space as a grown man. It would be impossible to mount my horse in this stultifying contraption.

Not that the countess would allow me near the barn on this day. “Really, Benedicta, you’re giving me a megrim.” She stood a head taller than me, her golden hair pinned into a coiffure of ironed ringlets and ornamented with a plume of feathers. “I spent a fortnight making this gown, and by God’s heart, you will wear it with dignity.” To hell with God’s heart. I swore in spite of his teeth. But never in the presence of the Lady Abigail. “I didn’t ask for this.” I motioned at the gown and the ornate furnishings of my bedchamber. “For any of this.

” “I didn’t ask for you. Yet here you are, an ungrateful, quarrelsome hoyden, born with both fists clenched.” It was always the same when the countess looked at me. She didn’t see her only child, a daughter to love, or a girl with earnest dreams. She only saw her shame. Her ruination. The reason she was exiled. Shifting toward the window, I sought a brighter view outside the glass panes. The dawn-lit sea stretched eastward from the sandy shoreline, aglitter with waves I couldn’t hear from my bedchamber. I’d never ventured beyond the port of Charleston, never even stepped foot aboard a ship.

But England flowed through my veins. And constricted my chest. Quite literally. “It’s too tight.” I reached back, clawing at the stays that pinched my spine. “It hurts to breathe.” “Then don’t.” “Don’t breathe? For how long?” “For as long as it takes to secure an offer.” An offer I didn’t want. I endeavored to live on a ship with a crew of cursing tars, not in a house with a line of biddable servants.

I wanted to ride a horse with my feet in stirrups, not sidesaddle and upright. I fancied stout ale over watery tea, sword-fighting over sewing, and would rather burn my nose in the sun than sit in a stuffy parlor. And this gown? I stifled an unladylike grunt. What I wouldn’t give for a pair of trousers. Which was why, as a girl on the cusp of a betrothed marriage, I was undesirable, uncooperative, and entirely unfit for this. Unfortunately, the countess didn’t sympathize with my position or my improper attributes. With a hand circling my arm, she dragged me to the dressing table and examined my appearance in the mirror. “Well…” She tilted her head and sniffed. “I’m not a seamstress, but I daresay I’ve seen nothing so smart outside of London. If you remember your station and keep your mouth shut, the gown alone might win his favor.

” My reflection glared back at me, clad in the flounciest, most attention-grabbing dress in Carolina. Striped in shades of pink, the skirt opened in front to reveal a white petticoat trimmed in a dozen too many frills. The deep square-cut bosom accentuated my lack of breasts and bony shoulders. Trumpet-shaped sleeves caught up at my elbows, which naturally, would be dragged across plates of gravy and sweet cream before the day’s end. But as much as I despised the dress, I understood the necessity of pomp and ceremony and my mother’s struggle to achieve it. The upper class had clothing made for them, and the countess managed to live amongst that charmed circle, despite having no financial worth of her own. Lady Abigail Leighton, the only child of the ninth Earl Leighton, inherited her title upon the earl’s death. But nothing more. When her inglorious affair with a commoner was made evident by my illegitimate existence, she lost her dowry, her family, and her coveted status in the beau monde. With no support in England, she was forced abroad—pregnant, destitute, alone—and found refuge here with distant cousins.

They took her in, and fourteen years later, we remained in their opulent home, made use of their servants, and ate their lavish meals. But none of this belonged to us. The master of the house, while ever gracious, could toss us out on our backsides without warning or reason. We were insolvent tenants. My mother’s ruined reputation ensured that was all she would ever be unless she found a way to reenter society. I ran my hands over the gown, gilded in her meticulous efforts. She spun, wove, and fashioned our garments out of necessity. Every spool of thread was a cost she couldn’t afford, every cut of cotton a labor of determination, every stitch a stab at a better future. A better future for her. All I wanted was adventure and a pair of trousers.

She turned at the sound of a knock on the bedchamber door. “Enter.” “My lady.” The parlor maid hurried in, ducking her bonnet-clad head as she offered the countess a gentleman’s calling card. Moisture trickled down my spine, and the stays grew uncomfortably tighter. I didn’t need to glance at the card to know it announced the arrival of the Marquess of Grisdale. “I’ll receive him in the blue parlor,” my mother said. “Prepare the tea.” “Yes, my lady.” The maid bobbed a curtsy and beat a hasty exit.

I’d never met Lord Grisdale, but his letter to the countess mentioned I’d caught his eye during one of my visits to the pier. At age forty-four, the childless widower had the wealth and influence to help Lady Abigail regain her former status. He lived in England and would return there once his business concluded in Charleston. He was her ticket home. In exchange, she had only one thing to offer. Me. My worth lay in my virtue and lineage. It didn’t matter that I was merely fourteen or that he was thirty years my elder. If he were the highest bidder for my hand, the countess would eagerly accept. My breaths quickened, pulling dread down my throat and into my tumbling stomach.

I’d overheard the whispered conversations amongst the scullery maids. Conversations about what men and women did together in the marriage bed. Lord Grisdale would require me to do that with him, to breed his heirs and service his masculine needs. The thought sickened me, but I had as much say in it as the nag horse in the barn. “Heavens, Benedicta. Look at your hair.” My mother’s voice trembled, a reedy sound of disapproval and sudden nerves. “This won’t do, and I don’t have time to repair it.” The lady’s maid had spent the past hour wrestling my wild blond coils into a presentable pile on my head. The waist-length tresses, thicker and more unruly than my mother’s, were already working themselves free from the pins.

Wayward spirals sprung in every direction and dangled rebelliously around my ears. I didn’t care about my appearance, but it had a crippling effect on my mother. Her hands balled at her sides. Cords stretched in her stiff neck, and the hope that had brightened her eyes only moments before vanished behind shadows of dismay. My throat thickened. Oh, how I wished for her happiness. I didn’t know what a smile would look like on her aristocratic face or how the sound of laughter would alter her voice. But maybe it was obtainable. Maybe if I cooperated. Just this once.

“You mustn’t keep him waiting.” I leaned toward the mirror and tackled my hair. “I’ll fix this.” As I added more pins, she didn’t move. Her presence loomed behind me, silent and uncertain. “Mother?” I glanced over my shoulder. “This is important to me.” Her eyes narrowed. “I know, my lady.” Her expression softened.

Until something caught her attention on my neck. She reached for it, snatching the thin chain I’d tried to conceal beneath the lace choker. The pendant lay against my spine, hidden by the stays. “Why are you wearing this?” She yanked on the necklace, attempting to break it. “Don’t.” I caught her wrist in a bruising grip, stopping her from harming my most treasured possession. Her eyes flared, but she surrendered her hold on the chain. “Is that the bauble you received from that savage native last year?” That was the story I’d given her. She couldn’t know the truth about how I acquired it, what it meant to me, or the pledge I’d made to never take it off. “Yes.

” I closed my hand around the jade pendant, protecting it from her criticism. “Remove it.” Never. “Forgive me.” I let my posture sag and carefully arranged my lips around a lie. “I forgot to put it away, but I’ll do that—” I twisted the lace choker, pretending to work the chain free. “Blast it, it’s tangled.” “We don’t have time for this.” Livid red rose across her cheeks as she reached for my neck. “Go.

” I stepped back. “I’ll put everything back in order and join you in a trice.” She glanced at the door and drew in a breath. And another. Shoulders squared, head held high, she composed herself into a portrait of social grace. “Don’t delay.” She cast me a withering glare. “And if I see that disgraceful necklace again, I shall tie your wrists with it and have you flogged.” In a swish of lavender silk, she breezed into the hall and shut the door behind her. A rush of air vacated my lungs, and I opened my hand, cradling the precious pendant in my palm.

Crowned by a filigree band of gold, the green stone was the length of my thumb and half as narrow. Serrated cuts decorated dozens of mysterious facets as if it had been painstakingly sawed from the earth. I’d never seen anything so unrefined and magical. As a child of English nobility, I’d been weaned on restrictive clothing, polished smiles, and the art of dissembling. But my heart belonged on a ship with the seafarer who’d given me a jade stone and loved me for who I was. Impulsive. Wild. Rebellious. I returned the pendant to its hiding place beneath my garments and plastered my curls into a mold of proper English fashion. It wouldn’t kill me to look like a lady.

But if the marquess liked what he saw, a wedding would go forth and kill my dreams. If I sabotaged this introduction, there would be other suitors. Other offers. And a flogging, to be certain. I could endure the flogging. It was my mother’s sadness that knotted my stomach in an endless loop. I shouldn’t make her work so hard to be happy. She’d pushed me into this world, and I’d been pushing back ever since. No wonder she never smiled. With a hard shake of my head, I tested the subdued array of blond curls.

Then I heard it. The distant bark of a dog. I froze, listening with my entire being, as a second dog joined in. My pulse careened into a gallop. Could it be? Had I imagined it? I darted to the window, bumping the pannier into furniture and knocking over a lamp. At the sill, I pressed my brow to the glass and studied the landscape. Acres of woodland lay between the rear of the estate and the coast. The barking came again, and I tracked the sound to the northern edge of the tree line. Two hounds raced back and forth, yelping their message, loudly and persistently, as they were trained to do. His hounds.

His messengers. I choked upon air. “He returned.” I stumbled away from the window, spinning awkwardly in the cage of my gown. “Oh, Lord, he’s here.” If I didn’t follow his hounds, I would miss him. If I missed him, more months would pass. More seasons. Another year. I couldn’t bear the thought.

My heart labored. If I left, the countess would pound the pudding out of me. I whirled back to the window and gritted my teeth. “Then a pounding it shall be.”


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