Episode I of The Bargain
Length: 4 Chapters (18,000 words)
Summary: Precious Jewells Misadventures at Sea Heading to Port Elizabeth
Status: Available for sale.
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 wont 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 ladys maid, Precious Jewell, might offer the beleaguered baron a new reason to dream.
The Bargain is the first Port Elizabeth Regency Tale. Get Episode II
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London, February 4, 1819
Lightning 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 was so starched and formal. So different from the plain hand-me-downs she'd gotten in Charleston, wearing them filled her middle with something, not quite pride, not joy either. Something. She reckoned 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 couldnt put off her request any more. A drunken set down or slap couldnt be any worse than what shed suffered. That was Englands 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 werent wasnt 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 wasnt 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. Shed heard him cry for hours like a banshee. 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-olds eyes loomed large. Tears pooled too, but the little man didnt 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 couldnt 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 pappys crystal blues, but all of Elizas blonde locks. And shes 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 fathers wrath. Lord knows, Jonas hadnt seen enough of his pa, and viewing the man drunk or yelling wouldnt 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 who was not a slave.
Precious jumped as Jonas touched her neck. Hed 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. Palmers 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, Eliza 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. Palmers came out of the room. His stern face held a deep frown planted between old saggy jowls. He looked sad. 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-ings 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 didnt 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 a beating if Mr. Marsdale had caught her, but sailing free was worth it. Wasn't freedom worth every risk?
Thunder erupted. The storm pelted the roof in a steady punching manner. Her breath came in spurts as she remembered a backhand to the jaw and the stings of a whip all endured while 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 Welling 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, madam? 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 and 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. Youre 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 arm back. "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 through the lace of her floppy mobcap. His laugh dimples were missing. 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 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 loose hair to the side. He wore it longer than most. It gave 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. 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, soaked in liquor, blended with the hint of vanilla of his skin, along with 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. 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 a 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. He flung it with a thud to scamper across the waxed sideboard. His vision split it 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. Her 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 the window. How could he let Jewell go and take the last traces of Eliza, too?