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Pride and Petticoats
By Shana Galen
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2005 Shana Galen
All right reserved.
"It ain't proper. It just ain't proper. You acting no better than a brazen hussy," the dark-skinned woman beside Charlotte grumbled. "You hear me, Miss Charlotte?"
Charlotte stopped in front of a dilapidated gray building on Thames Street near London's Custom House. "Yes, Addy." She'd heard her maid loud and clear all the way across the Atlantic Ocean. Six weeks of Addy's huffing and harrumphing, and Charlotte was ready to use the braided cords of her reticule to strangle the woman. Looking down at the small shabby pouch she held in one gloved hand, Charlotte mused that the frayed braiding would probably snap if she so much as yanked it closed too quickly. The slim strings had no hope of holding up against Addy's solid neck. Gingerly pulling the black reticule open, Charlotte glanced a last time at the smeared address on a crumpled yellow paper, then stuffed it back inside.
"Look around you, girl. This ain't no place for a lady," Addy said.
Charlotte took a quick survey of their surroundings and didn't argue. They'd been in London all of three hours and she'd yet to escape the smell of rotting fish, unwashed bodies, and stale liquor. She and Addy had departed their ship at the London docks, trailing their scant luggage behind them as they made their way past the Tower of London and into the city.
As they'd walked, the terrain and the inhabitants had become steadily rougher. Charlotte couldn't imagine this city at night. It was dangerous in the sunlight -- or at least what passed for sunlight in England's fog-shrouded capital.
Thank George Washington that they had finally arrived. She tried not to wonder why the building before them looked more like a dockside tavern than a residence. "Well, we're here now," Charlotte said.
"We here? You ain't really going to knock on that door?" Addy asked. "Head hard as a cast-iron pot," she mumbled.
Charlotte frowned at her. "Oh, hush. You're the stubborn one. I keep telling you I'm trying to make things better."
"We can make do without no charity from Cade Pettigru. Troublesome rascal." She muttered the last.
"Addy, Cade is a good man, and he's been a good friend to our family for years. We can trust him, and we need his help." She didn't add that he was very likely their last hope.
Addy straightened to her full height, which was almost six feet. "Chicken spit. I satisfied with a roof a new shawl. Oh, and I could do with a heap of some simple home-cooked food."
Charlotte winced at the reference to the repulsive fare they'd endured on the long sea voyage. The main staple had been cabbage soup, and Charlotte, who'd never cared for cabbage, had been forced to abandon it for bread and water after one particularly noxious bowl made her violently ill. She, too, longed for the delights of home -- cornbread, sweet potatoes, fried chicken. Most especially she longed for the warmth and friendliness of Charleston. She hated these English with their harsh accents and arrogant manners.
But she would endure them. One glance at Addy reminded Charlotte of her reasons. The expensive shawl Addy had received as a gift from Charlotte's father and had always treasured was now little more than a rag, and Addy's dress was wrinkled and dusty. But worse than Addy's scuffed shoes and tattered shawl was her face. It was heavily lined with weariness, giving her cheeks the appearance of the hull of a shipwreck -- a once-proud vessel left to wither in the sun.
Charlotte turned back to the gray ramshackle building and took a deep breath. If only Addy knew how much Charlotte hated surprising Cade like this, how low and common she felt asking him for money, Addy wouldn't be so hard on her. What if Charlotte asked him to be her new business partner, and he turned her down? It would be beyond humiliating. But Charlotte could see no other way. She was responsible for Addy, and she would not allow the older woman to suffer any more than she already had.
Charlotte pinched her cheeks to heighten their color and righted her bonnet, tucking up the loose red tendrils of her hair. "We're here now, Addy, and I know you've missed Cade as much as I have."
Addy gave her a look that said she'd missed the rambunctious young man about as much as she missed changing Charlotte's diapers when she'd been a babe.
Charlotte held up a hand before Addy could expound on the subject. "This is the direction Mr. Porcher gave me." She looked up and down the street, noting the trash and offal littering the ground under the windows of the dilapidated houses. "I hope this is correct." It certainly didn't look like where she'd imagined Cade living.
Addy huffed. "We been over land, over water, in carriages, on foot, and even on those godforsaken beasts." She pointed at a horse and rider clopping toward them through the crowds of dirty people. "We's here, and if you dead set against turning around, best get it done with. The sooner you go in that there door, the sooner we can go home."
"Not much home to go back to," Charlotte murmured, and the feeling of loss pierced her gut like the sharp point of a dagger. "But if we can convince Cade to invest, everything will be like it used to."
"Your heart is too soft, Miss Charlotte. Those people ain't your friends. When you done lost all that money, they disappeared fast as a pitcher of lemon water on a hot day."
Shame and humiliation heated Charlotte's cheeks, and she looked down at her worn boots, the toes of which poked from beneath the skirt of her dress.
With a sigh, she straightened her shoulders and took a step forward, then paused as behind them the hoofbeats from the approaching horse slowed. Charlotte and Addy glanced 'round as the rider . . .
Excerpted from Pride and Petticoats by Shana Galen Copyright © 2005 by Shana Galen. Excerpted by permission.
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