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By Alexandria Scott
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Alexandria Scott
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBrooke Hammond, Shannon McKinley, and Jocelyn Rutland were all survivors in one way or another.
The women stood on the rolling deck of the Flying Lady, watching the American shoreline grow bigger, wondering what adventures awaited them.
A warm, gentle breeze blew strands of hair across Brooke's nose. She reached up and removed her hat, then tucked the wayward curls behind her ear, not that it helped much as long as she remained positioned at the ship's rail.
Brooke glanced at her friends standing on either side of her. They were much too quiet. She imagined that they were afraid to say anything for fear they would wake up from this wonderful dream of a new life and a new beginning.
Brooke wouldn't let anything stop them now. She and her friends were no longer the naive women they'd once been, waiting hopefully for a man to change their lives.
Well, maybe Shannon still believed that there was someone out there just for her, but she was Scottish, so that explained her far fetched, romantic notions. And what man wouldn't want Shannon, with her soft white skin and beautiful auburn hair?
But Brooke didn't believe in love. From what she'd seen, men and women used each other to get what they wanted. And if you didn't have money, you had to depend on others. She could remember what it was like to be in the streets of London with no home ... no money. The thought still made her shiver. She had experienced being poor, and she wanted nothing to do with that ever again. Nor did she want to depend on someone else for what she needed. She was going to make something of her life, and there wasn't a man alive she'd let stand in her way.
As a young girl, she'd had visions of true love dancing in her head, but they were soon dashed in the harsh light of reality. Sometimes life doesn't turn out like you'd hoped. But it would now, for her. This was her chance at a new start. Brooke sighed as a group of seagulls cried raucously, bringing her attention back to the present.
"I wish you were both going with me to New Orleans," Brooke murmured wistfully to her friends. They had been together over the last few years, and understood each other well. It would be sad not to have them nearby to talk to every day.
Shannon shoved thick red hair over her shoulders, then tied the long locks back to keep them out of her face. "I'd love tae see the plantation, but we agreed when we started out that we'd be wantin' tae find our own ways," she said in her Scottish brogue. "'Twas nice of Mr. Jeffries tae find me a position on a ranch, though."
"That's right, we did agree," Jocelyn chimed in. "At least you both know where you're going and what you're going to do." She pointed to her chest. "I, on the other hand, don't have the vaguest notion of what I want to do. Hopefully, there is a respectable job for a woman somewhere in that city," she said, nodding toward New York. "Mr. Jeffries gave me the name of an acquaintance of his who might be helpful, but I'll take no handouts. I intend to support myself and be independent."
Brooke smiled. She'd known Jocelyn the longest. They met at boarding school and had liked each other from the start. Jocelyn definitely didn't believe in love anymore. Of the three of them, she had tasted love, and what had it gotten her? A broken heart and tossed out of her father's house. So she'd turned to her uncle, Jackson Montgomery, and he had taken her into his home where she and Brooke were reunited.
After Jackson Montgomery, Duke of Devonshire, entered Brooke's life, everything had changed. He understood that she wasn't living the life she wanted. Who ever started out wanting to be a courtesan?
It was true that he'd kept her in a town house he'd bought just for her, but Jackson wasn't like the other men she'd known. He had been her friend, never so much as hinting at sexual relations. It seemed as though, in some strange way, he saw the good in Brooke and wanted to protect her. When he'd taken in his nieces, Jocelyn and Shannon, who were very close to Brooke's age, they had become a family, as the girls bonded with each other.
Jackson had promised that he'd leave Brooke and the girls well taken care of. When he'd died, he'd left Brooke his American plantation and enough money for the young women to leave England and make a fresh start in America. He also left them the incomparable Mr. Jeffries, the solicitor in charge of his affairs, to help the women travel and get settled.
Brooke had been astonished that Jackson had done as he said he would. It had been her experience that people didn't usually follow through with promises, so she'd had no real expectations. She'd heard too many empty promises in her lifetime.
Shannon shook Brooke's arm, bringing her back to the present. "Where is Mr. Jeffries?" Shannon paused, then added, "Ye seem tae be daydreamin' a lot lately."
Brooke gave her a faint smile. "I was remembering the duke. He was such a special and extraordinary man."
"And a good uncle," Jocelyn added. "I can't say the same about my aunt, though. I was young when she went away, so I don't remember her well."
Brooke frowned. "I thought she was dead."
Jocelyn glanced at Shannon. "Do you remember her?"
"Nae. I just remember that no one ever spoke o' Aunt Barbara again, sae she must huv died," Shannon said then went on, "but our uncle seemed tae be a happier mon without her."
Jocelyn nodded in agreement.
"As for Jeffries," Brooke said, "I've not seen him since breakfast. He told me that he had to make preparations for our travel to New Orleans."
"Wasn't it grand of Mr. Jeffries to accompany us from England?" Jocelyn turned and propped her arms on the rail. "I'm not sure any of us would have known what to do. We would probably still be standing on the docks in London, watching the ship sail away without us."
"Now, now," Brooke countered. "Somehow, we would have found the correct ship. However, it was Jackson's instructions that Mr. Jeffries would accompany us, so he had no choice. Jeffries told me that I had inherited a plantation, and we were provided enough money for travel. And, of course, each of you were left a thousand pounds to help get started. I believe Jackson was hoping that we'd all go to Moss Grove. Evidently, he didn't know just how independent his nieces are." Brooke smiled. "For some strange reason, Jeffries was instructed not to read the entire will until we reached Moss Grove Plantation."
"'Tis a bit odd," Shannon said.
"I thought so, too," Brooke agreed. "The only reason I can come up with is that it will be easier for me if Jeffries introduces me to the household staff, and to be truthful, I'm glad we have him along.
"America is a strange country I've only read about. I'd be completely lost without him. However," Brooke said with a saucy smile, "I have studied books on the planting of cotton so that I'll know something about living on a plantation."
"I agree." Shannon nodded. "The mon has been verra helpful wi' makin' arrangements fer my trip." Her face lit up with a smile. "Just think, I'm goin' tae be a governess fer two bairns. From their descriptions, they sound adorable."
Brooke looked at Shannon with amused wonder. "Besides being a child yourself, what do you know about children?"
"Verra little," Shannon admitted as a flash of humor crossed her face. "But I ken if I can handle men and their childish ways, then the bairns wull only be smaller, therefore easier tae handle."
Everyone laughed, enjoying each other's company as they usually did. Yet each felt a twinge of sadness, knowing that their time together was slipping away.
"If you ask me, it sounds as if you're going out into the wilderness," Jocelyn said.
"Aye, the Texas Territory wull be verra different, but different is what I want," she said with a slight smile. "I want adventure and tae see all those cowboys close up."
A loud thump made all three women flinch and grab for the rail as the ship bumped, then settled next to the wooden platform. They peered over the railing, witnessing the dock spring to life with crewmen racing along the platform, grabbing the ropes to tie off the ship, and shouting instructions to their mates.
The streets leading up to the pier were filled with wooden pier drays, wagons, and fruit stalls, each vendor hawking their wares. Wagons lined up, waiting for the ship's cargo to be off-loaded. And there seemed to be a multitude of carriages waiting for disembarking passengers.
"Do you have your trunks packed?" Brooke asked.
Both women nodded.
"In that case I better go and get my reticule," Brooke said, turning away from the rail. "I'll meet both of you on the dock."
As Brooke made her way to the cabin they shared, she wouldn't have admitted to anyone that she wasn't as confident as she tried to appear. Truth be told, she was both excited and scared, if that made any sense. It certainly didn't to her.
She would miss her friends. They were the only ones who understood her, who actually knew what she'd been through, and had experienced some of the loneliness she had. But they had a right to their own lives, and she wanted them to be happy.
Brooke raised her chin, stubbornly forcing herself to be brave. She wouldn't allow herself to be sad today. Today she had a bright new future ahead of her. Reaching her cabin she pulled open the door, strode to the bed, and grabbed her reticule.
Back on deck, Brooke noticed that some of the passengers had made their way to the dock. She left the ship and shoved her way through the crowd to where her friends stood with Mr. Jeffries.
Mr. Jeffries had rented two carriages, one for Brooke and another for her friends. He was overseeing the loading of their trunks on top of the carriage. Jeffries wasn't a tall man, but he was a couple of inches taller than Brooke. His hair, or what there was of it, was gray. He had a bald spot on the very top and bushy hair around the sides. As always, he was dressed in his gray vest and white shirt.
He turned when Brooke reached them. "Miss Shannon and Miss Jocelyn, I have secured hotel rooms for you at the Block House and have established accounts for both of you at the First National Bank in New York, so funds will be available for you to draw upon."
"How did the money get there?" Brooke asked.
"His Grace had me come to America before his death and make arrangements. I believe he overheard your conversations of wanting to come to America.
"Now, I'll leave you to your good-byes. Do remember that I'll be in this country for a good six months, so if you need me just send a wire to Moss Grove and Brooke will know how to get in touch with me."
Shannon and Jocelyn smiled their thanks, then each of them gave him a hug.
"Here, here, we'll have none of that," Jeffries blustered. "It's my job, after all."
Brooke glanced at her friends, wanting to memorize the slightest details of how they looked. She was so afraid that they would forget each other.
Shannon was the smallest of the three, but she was feisty, her redheaded temper making up for her lack of size. Her radiant hair made her stand out in any crowd. Jackson had once told Brooke that Shannon's father had often beaten her when he got drunk. It was probably one the reasons she was a real spitfire.
And then there was Jocelyn. What could Brooke say about Jocelyn other than the woman just seemed to sparkle from some inner strength? Her burnished mahogany tresses framed a delicately sculpted face. There was an elegance about her that Brooke had always wished she, too, possessed.
"I guess this is good-bye," Brooke finally said, hearing her voice crack as she spoke. She held her arms wide.
The women wrapped their arms around Brooke, and she hugged them back, fiercely holding them to her heart. They were her family and, for that matter, the only family she knew. She'd miss them a great deal.
"'Tis only good-bye for a wee bit," Shannon whispered. She managed a choked and desperate laugh, tears sliding down her cheeks. "Dinna make me cry. Let's promise that we'll meet in one year at Moss Grove."
"That's an excellent idea," Jocelyn agreed as she brushed the hot, salty tears from her cheeks.
Brooke attempted to give them a brave smile, but her teary eyes betrayed her. "Do you both promise to come? No excuses?"
"Good," Brooke said, nodding with finality. "And you must write often so I'll know how both of you are doing. I promise I'll do the same."
After they nodded their agreement, Brooke gave them a final hug and stepped back, making a big pretense of straightening her skirt, fighting against the tears she refused to let fall. "Now, all I have to do is figure out how to run a plantation," she said. "So you'll have someplace to come."
Shannon tossed her auburn curls over her shoulder, and her face creased into a sudden smile. "We ken ye can do it. Ye've always been the smartest and bravest amon' us."
"I agree," Jocelyn said with a firm nod. "You can do anything you want to. Don't let anyone tell you differently."
Brooke shifted, squaring her shoulders and lifting her chin. "Well with that vote of confidence, I'll do my best. But," she added, "I want you both to remember-it doesn't matter where you've been. What matters is where you're going and how you get there."
"Och, she's beginnin' tae sound like a mother," Shannon protested, then she laughed and nudged Jocelyn in the side.
Jocelyn nodded. "Then it's time for us to go."
Since there was nothing left to say, the two women climbed into the carriage, and Brooke watched the driver close the door. "You're going to miss my nagging," she called to them, her voice cracking slightly.
Gnawing on her lip to keep from weeping, Brooke waved good-bye. If only they knew how much I wanted them to stay with me, she thought. But I'm on my own, and by God I will survive, one way or the other.
Chapter TwoHer journey had finally reached its end.
Brooke Hammond's spirits rose as she and Mr. Jeffries neared New Orleans. Though she'd only caught glimpses of the city as they traveled via the main thoroughfares and straight out of town, she liked what she saw and looked forward to returning to town once she'd settled on the plantation.
Brooke settled back to enjoy the remainder of the ride. It had been a long trip, and she had grown weary of traveling and living out of a trunk, but she tried not to complain. It wouldn't be much longer now.
The country was lovely with the lush trees and fields that Mr. Jeffries had described as sugarcane and cotton.
Brooke pressed her dainty, white handkerchief to her forehead. She noticed a vast difference between the air in New Orleans and New York. There was always a hint of moisture in the air here. That, in combination with the extreme heat, made her skin feel clammy.
Finally the carriage began to slow, and through the carriage window Brooke caught her first glimpse of a sign announcing that they were about to enter Moss Grove Plantation. Her breath caught in her throat. She couldn't seem to utter a single word as a hundred thoughts rushed into her head all at once.
At last she'd have her very own home, a home that was hers permanently, not just for a little while. Most importantly, she would be the mistress. She'd never have to depend on anyone else's decision ever again. A home meant much more to Brooke than money. It was something that she had never had. Her years growing up in a boarding school were the closest thing to home she could imagine.
All her dreams were about to come true.
The mansion wasn't yet visible when the carriage swung between the octagonal, brick pigeonniers positioned on either side of the drive, so seeing her new home was once again delayed. However, the red dirt driveway was smooth and unrutted, demonstrating that a great deal of care had gone into the preparation of the plantation. She could just imagine what the house must look like.
So far, Brooke had to admit that she liked what she'd seen of America compared to England's damp cool days.
Today the sky was beautiful and clear, though the heat would take some getting used to with her thick British blood. Perhaps with fall approaching, the days would become pleasant. "The trees here are a bit unusual and very wide, don't you think?" Brooke asked across the carriage to Mr. Jeffries.
He slid back the leather flap on the window. "I believe they are called live oaks. They grow very large and wide," he explained. "And I see a few pecan trees mixed in the group."
Huge live oaks, of which Brooke had already counted twenty, lined the long drive on either side. As the carriage traveled down the lane, the limbs were laced overhead like fingers, dripping with a queer, gray-beard growth that Brooke had never seen before.
Excerpted from Southern Seduction by Alexandria Scott Copyright © 2007 by Alexandria Scott. Excerpted by permission.
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