Splendor – Catherine Hart

All the demons of the deep were loose and on a midnight rampage. Stealthily, they struck from the smothering darkness with scarcely a whisper of forewarning before the first magnificent crash of thunder rent the false calm, resounding over the water like a death knell. The sea gave a mighty heave, sending the frigate reeling upon waters suddenly turbulent with gigantic swells. Sails, flapping gently mere seconds before, now nearly exploded with the intense gusts battering them. The startled crew of the Gai Mer, most shaken abruptly from slumber, scurried to their posts, desperate to reef the canvas against the raw fury of this unexpected storm. Shoving his young helmsman aside, the ship’s captain hurriedly took charge of the wheel himself, instinctively knowing his advanced experience would be needed if they were to survive this show of power which nature had visited upon them so capriciously. Over the roar of the gale, Captain Kane shouted orders to his men. The wind whipped his words from his mouth; thunder drowned them in its trembling wake. Jagged spears of lightning split the heavens, slicing through the roiling clouds to release a blinding deluge upon them. Within seconds, the decks were as slick as ice, the rain pelting like a thousand prickly nettles to pierce their flesh. Drenched sails languished momentarily beneath their own sodden weight, flailing and twisting like a washerwoman’s wet laundry, snapping like mad dogs as they strained against the lines and the insistent pull of the wind. Several billowed free once more, cracking loudly, sending sailors sprawling as the frigate lurched in frantic response. Clews groaned, grommets popped, separating canvas from line and line from spars. Shrouds tangled like clumps of twine caught in the hand of a mischievous giant. On the bridge, Devlin Kane fought the wheel, the muscles of his brawny arms bulging as he strained to keep the frigate’s nose angled into the ever-building waves.

His booted feet were braced wide for purchase on the slippery deck; his soaked breeches and shirt were plastered the length of his tall, broad-shouldered frame. Eyes as black as ebony squinted against the pouring rain, peering into the night, scanning the deck below him and the skies above. With neither hat to secure it nor thong to bind it, his tawny hair whipped about his head like the shaggy mane of a lion, as wild and free as the man who sported it. Lightning flashed, and the hoop of gold in Devlin’s left ear winked an answering glimmer, as did the strong white teeth now bared in a primal grin. Sleek, sun-darkened flesh drew taut and wet over the slim, straight blade of his nose, the curve of bold cheekbones, the stubborn square jaw with a cleft carved deeply into the center of his chin. The prow of the ship dipped perilously low into the dark heart of a steep trough of water. Trembling walls of water rode high all around, threatening to bury the Gai Mer at any moment. A froth of salt water sprayed over the bow in a shimmer of lightning-lit lace, dashing over the decks like the spread of a lady’s shawl. Miraculously, the ship rose, balancing precariously on the wobbly crest of the next wave in a nimble dance of defiance. With a toss of his head, Devlin let loose a deep, rumbling laugh.

“That’s the way, m’ lady!” he chuckled, encouraging the frigate as if she were a living thing. “The dragon’s shaking his tail for all he’s worth this night, but ’twill do him little good. Nay! Old Neptune may aim his trident at us all he wishes, yet we’ll dodge his every thrust! We’ll best him at his own game, or I’m not Devlin ‘The Devil’ Kane, captain of the heartiest crew of pirates ever to sail these seas!” As if to disclaim Devlin’s boast, the waves grew ever higher, the gale stronger, tossing the ship about as if it were no more than a splinter upon the ocean. The planks and masts creaked against every blast of wind and surf that pummeled the frigate relentlessly. Waves surged over the sides, claiming three hapless victims within their foamy grasp before the angered storm gods were mollified. By the end of it, Devlin was ready to nod his head in deference to the mighty power of the sea, that most haughty and demanding of all mistresses. She’d almost won this bout, and it was a profound relief to find himself still standing when the storm at last began to wear itself out. The rain had lessened to a drizzle, the thunder weakened to a few final grumbles, when Devlin finally pried his stiff fingers loose of the wheel and turned the ship over to his helmsman once more. Still flexing feeling into his hands, he strode a few feet to the mizzenmast. On the near side of the mast, a large peg had been driven into it, with a small slanted roof fixed a little space above.

Shoving aside the scrap of tarp that had provided added shelter during the storm, Devlin reached out to untie the large, slightly damp, and disgruntled hawk tethered there. Zeus, as the bird was called, was Devlin’s trained falcon and the Gai Mer’s resident talisman. As he smoothed a calming hand along the sleek plumage, Devlin crooned, “Quite a ride for you, eh, my friend? Aye, ’twas a rough one this time for us all.” With a rustle of wings, the agitated hawk landed atop Devlin’s shoulder, his curved beak snapping irritably at a wet strand of Devlin’s hair. On a bark of laughter, Devlin swatted at him. “Behave yourself, bird, or I’ll be feasting on falcon stew when next I break my fast, and my pillow will be the fatter for your feathers.” The last of his words were nearly drowned out as a tremendous clap of thunder shook the ship, surprising in its intensity now that the storm was all but over. It was followed immediately by the most brilliant blue light, so bright that Devlin reflexively shielded his eyes from it. Unlike the usual lightning, it did not merely flash and diminish as fast as it came. Rather, the glow seemed to brighten.

Wondering at this oddity, he cast his gaze upward, and paused to stare in mute wonder, as did every other man on deck, the lot of them struck dumb by the sight. Though Devlin had been sailing for eleven years, never had he witnessed anything like this. He’d heard of it, to be sure, from other seamen, but he wasn’t certain he’d ever believed their tales. Yet here it was before his stunned gaze. The proof of their words. Saint Elmo’s fire—skipping along the mizzenmast in a blazing ball of dazzling blue flames! Everything he’d ever heard about it came rushing to mind. Some said it wasn’t true lightning at all, but a phenomenon unto itself. Most agreed it came either at the beginning or at the end of a storm, heralding good or bad weather to follow, which would explain its appearance now, after the worst gale Devlin had ever encountered. The more superstitious sailors believed the strange light to be the souls of drowned seamen seeking solace and a final resting place aboard ship. Others claimed it was a portent of good luck, but only if it remained above the rigging on the mast.

If it traveled downward, below the rigging, it was a sign of sure misfortune, most especially if it landed upon the ship’s rudder. That most awful event was thought to be what created ghost ships, dooming poor lost souls to wander the seas evermore, sailing eternally through misty realms, caught betwixt heaven and hell forever. Just thinking about it sent a shiver down Devlin’s backbone. Before he had further time to consider the matter, the freakish blue orb began to descend the mast. One and all, the crew stood transfixed, agape with fright. Standing where he was at base of the mast, just below the fireball, Devlin knew he should move back, but his feet seemed rooted to the deck. His feet and legs refused his brain’s frantic commands to retreat. The sphere of light moved slowly, creeping eerily downward until it reached the lower edge of the rigging. There it hovered, shimmering, as if deciding which direction to take. Then, in the blink of an eye, it hurtled toward the deck, where it seemed to explode upon impact in a blinding blaze of sparks.

Caught in its path, Devlin felt a sizzling shock slam through his body. If Thor had thrown his mighty hammer from the heavens and hit Devlin in the chest with it, it could not have stunned him more. His eyes glazed over, his vision blurring. Within his chest, he felt his heart cease its beating. His brain screamed out a warning. Breathe! Breathe! Yet he could not seem to make his body obey, could not draw breath into his burning lungs. His limbs began to quake, as if in a fit of palsy, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. Then, even as every ounce of his flesh and bones quivered, a queer numbness enveloped him, sucking him swiftly into a sparkling, spiraling void. All about him, Devlin’s crew watched in fascinated terror as the blue ball of Saint Elmo’s fire engulfed their captain. Before their stricken eyes, he began to shake violently, every hair upon his head standing straight on end! And Zeus, upon his shoulder, stiffened and puffed out into a wad of fluff that more resembled a huge dandelion puff than a falcon.

Except for the bird’s eyes, which bulged out of its head as if on the ends of miniature pokers. Then, to their further amazement and terror, the pair began to glow. Caught up in the searing blue sphere, both began to shimmer with an eerie iridescence of their own, as if the power of the strange lightning had entered their bodies and now shone from within. White, blue, green. Silver and gold. Bold, lustrous color radiated from them, so luminous it became almost too bright to bear watching. Gradually, the light began to waver and fade, bit by bit. But lo and behold, to their immense horror, so did their captain and his bird! Those who still watched could not believe their eyes. One minute the captain stood glimmering like a saint come to life—and the next, he had faded away to nothing! Completely and absolutely gone! Not even a pile of ashes to mark the deck upon which he’d trod! Swallowed up in thin air! Charles Town Eden Winters gave an inward sigh, clasped her hands in her lap, and gritted her teeth behind what she hoped was a placid smile. Seated directly across from her in the small parlor was the primary cause of her current headache and many of her most pressing problems— one Dudley Finster.

By occupation, he was the son and heir of Charles Town’s only moneylender, and an accomplished and cunning accountant in his own right. Just now, Dudley Finster was Eden’s nemesis, her archenemy, and a man most determined to court her into marriage with him. “Come now, my dear,” Dudley was saying, with a stretch of his thin, pale lips that seemed to Eden more of an evil grimace than a smile. “Such reluctance may be your idea of seemly conduct, proper spinster that you are, but it is entirely unnecessary. A simple agreement on your part, followed by a short period of engagement, would be quite sufficient.” “Sir, I do not want to marry you. I have no wish to marry anyone at this time. As you know, I have a company to run and an invalid mother in need of my care. Those endeavors take up most of my waking hours. I do not wish to add the burden of a husband.

” Eden paused a moment to let him digest her words, then added for further emphasis, “If, indeed, I wished to marry, there are others whom I might also consider as suitors for my hand.” Finster frowned slightly. “Ah, yes, but how many of them would willingly take your mother to their bosoms, Miss Winters?” he asked snidely. “A veritable millstone about their necks. I, on the other hand, am resigned to it, if that be the only means of attaining you as my bride.” Attaining my property is more the truth of the matter, Eden thought grimly. Though the shipping warehouse was currently in her widowed mother’s name, Eden managed it, and it would one day pass on to her, as the only child, and thus to Eden’s husband and children, should she have them. It was no small holding, being advantageously located on the wharf, large and easily accessible to the many ships that plied their trade in Charles Town Harbor. The only problem was that, under Eden’s inexpert guidance, the business was fast losing money. It had been declining steadily since her father had fallen ill and died three years before—a fact of which Dudley Finster was well aware, since his lending house held the note on Winters Warehouse, a note long past due.

He pressed that point now. “I regret having to say this, but how many of your prospective suitors would also be able to assume your debts, even should they be willing to do so? Whereas, if you were to wed me, the note would be dissolved immediately upon our marriage, as well as any other outstanding debts you might have accrued.” His bald statement hung between them like an omen of doom. In addition to the problems Finster had bluntly listed, at two and twenty years Eden was advancing past marriageable age. Not that she wasn’t comely enough to attract a husband, if a man held a penchant for skinny brown-haired scarecrows. For it was Eden’s plight to be cursed with her father’s height, and bones that refused to pad themselves with abundant flesh, as was both preferable and fashionable. Her curves were slight, lending her more the appearance of a lad than a robust woman. Though she possessed a slim waist and adequately formed breasts, she also had a terrible habit of slouching in an attempt to disguise her height, which successfully hid her best feminine attributes. Even in her youth, she’d been awkward and gangly in comparison with other girls. Too late to bloom while the harvest was prime.

And too educated by far for any man who might care to look beyond her physical shortcomings. It was little wonder then that Eden had preferred to hide herself away in books while prettier, rounder maids were giggling and batting their lashes. With her heart yearning for impossible things that came so readily to other women, Eden studied. Through her books she traveled the world, and dreamed of someday finding a man who would love her as she was, for the person she was inside herself, for her mind and her wit, and all the pent-up love she had to offer. As time, passed, she’d determined not to settle for anything less, even if it meant remaining a spinster until the end of her earthly days—which it seemed she very well might, if all the world had to offer her for a husband was the likes of Dudley Finster! Or some widower such as Walter Bromley, with eight mewling children and wanting only a warm body in his bed in order to create even more little mouths to feed. Or that aged, toothless lecher Uriah Kempler, who was too old and bent to stand a chance of enticing anyone better. Besides, deep in her heart of hearts, she still waited and hoped for that one man who would make her heart trip over itself and sing wildly with joy. Meanwhile, here she sat, with the bill collector intent on not only pounding down her door, but also demanding marriage in lieu of debtors’ prison. Not just for herself, but for her poor disabled mother! The greedy mongoose! Why, to her mind, he even looked like a cross between a ferret and a mean little mouse. Surely, he was no catch himself on the marriage mart, for he was short and thin, with bony narrow shoulders that seemed barely capable of supporting his clothes.

He had close-set hazel eyes, teeth too prominent for his mouth, and sparse brown hair pulled back into a stringy queue. By no stretch of the imagination did Dudley Finster measure up to Eden’s idea of Prince Charming, and she’d risk losing her last farthing—nay, she’d beg in the streets for bread—rather than sell herself into his bed, a thought so revolting that it made her shudder in disgust. “Well, I will leave you to contemplate my offer once again,” Finster told her, setting his teacup aside and rising from his seat. “But not for long, Miss Winters. I am a patient man, up to a point—and that point is fast approaching. I will have you, by fair means or foul, the choice of which is entirely in your hands. Do not tarry too long with your decision, my dear. You have one month. At the end of that time I will expect either your acceptance of my proposal of marriage, or your debt paid in full.” He graced her with a thin-lipped smile.

“Of course, garnering both would be a superb delight, but since I doubt you will find yourself capable of gaining that amount of coin in such short order, I shall forge ahead with plans for a forthcoming wedding.” He sketched a brief bow toward her. “Good day to you, and please convey my best wishes to your mother for her improved health.” As Finster let himself out the door, as if the Winters’s home already belonged to him, Eden collapsed into her chair, a heavy sigh escaping her trembling lips. What had she ever done to deserve being hounded by that mealymouthed vermin? How grandly he’d stated his terms; how graciously he’d extended the brief reprieve! Month? This being the fifth day of the fifth month of the Year of our Lord, 1718, by the first quarter of June, she would either be a reluctant bride-to-be or … Or what, for heaven’s sake? Out on her ear, with her mother beside her? With no coin in her purse or any legitimate means of gaining more? Of course, they would probably be able to keep the house for a while, though the warehouse would be forfeit. Perhaps they could take in boarders. Or find someone else who was willing to buy up her note from Finster, or go into the business with her for part ownership. But who? No one Eden knew at present was interested, at least no one with money. Neither was she aware of anyone in need of lodging, though she could post a notice at the dock prior to the next passenger ship’s arrival and hope that someone of good character would apply. It simply would not do to let just anyone take up residence in one’s home, of course, so she would have to demand references of some sort, if that became her only recourse.

Mama would not be at all pleased to be brought to such dire straits. But there was only so much a person could do, after all, and at this point Eden imagined only an act of Providence would save the business for them, with perhaps an added miracle to send “Finny” Finster looking elsewhere for a wife. Maybe she did need a husband after all, Eden concluded with a wry shake of her head. A big, strong, rich, handsome man with enough muscle and sufficient wits to meet all her many needs and solve her problems for her. She chuckled softly. “Aye, Eden, my girl. No doubt he’ll come strolling into your life any day now. The answer to all your hopes and prayers. Now, that’s not asking for much, is it? Godly intervention, a miracle or two, and all your secret fantasies fulfilled in the space of a month! Ho! What a grand dreamer you are becoming! Such a dotty old maid!”

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