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A BRIDE most BEGRUDGING
By DEEANNE GIST
Bethany House PublishersCopyright © 2005 Deeanne Gist
All right reserved.
Chapter OneVirginia Colony Two Months Later
THE GOWN THEY GAVE her fit too closely. It displayed her figure with humiliating clarity, but perhaps that would work to her advantage. She had lost so much weight, she couldn't imagine any farmer wanting to invest in such a sickly looking woman.
Several tobacco planters had been on board already to examine the "cargo." The men stood chained on one side of the upper deck, the women on the other. The men were being sold as indentured servants for seven or fourteen year terms, depending upon their sentence.
But the women were to serve a lifetime sentence. They were to be purchased as brides. One bride in exchange for 120 pounds of tobacco leafage, the colony's cash crop.
All except Constance, that is. She had been placed alone up on the half deck, her wrists and ankles shackled, the first mate standing guard behind her right shoulder. The captain was asking two hundred pounds of tobacco for her. Ridiculous.
Her gaze drifted over the indentured men. Uncle Skelly was not among them, of course. How could he be?
Only twice during the voyage had the captain allowed the women onto the upper deck for fresh air. The first time up, she'd passed Uncle Skelly on the mid deck. With a collar and padlock about his neck, they had chained him not only to a board but to three of the most abominable creatures she had ever seen. Jail fever consumed one of those creatures.
The second time up, she had found Uncle Skelly's place on the board eerily vacant. The first mate, Cooper, had confirmed her fears. Skelly Morrow was dead.
Constance swallowed the rush of tears that even now accumulated in her throat at the memory.
"Look lively, maiden. Here comes a'one," Cooper snarled.
She stiffened as a young farmer of but a score or so years approached the half deck. He looked at Cooper, nodded slightly, then turned to her.
She jerked back when he captured some strands of her hair between his long work-roughened fingers. The captain had not allowed her to wear a headcloth this morning. He'd insisted on having her hair loose and uncovered around her shoulders and back.
This display was nothing short of blasphemy. A woman's hair was sacred and a recognized symbol of her maidenhood, only to be worn free while speaking wedding vows.
She'd never felt so naked in her life. Her hair wasn't soft and silky like other women's. It was wild and thick with tightly coiled ringlets that seemed to multiply when unbound.
The bay breeze picked up, causing her hair to swirl around her face. She tried again to free herself from the man's grasp.
"Easy, miss. I'll not hurt you," he said.
His voice was kind, as were his eyes. He did not rake her with an offensive look nor handle her roughly. If he asked to see her teeth, though, she'd be most uncooperative.
Below, two men captured her attention. One was a dark-haired farmer with a straw hat in his hand. The other was blond and had been on board the ship during the passage over. He'd not been a prisoner, nor had he been a crew member. She'd learned he had paid an extraordinary fee for his passage to the colony, a place he claimed as his home.
The pair singled out Mary, the woman who'd been chained next to Constance the entire voyage over. They spoke with Mary, checked her teeth, and had her walk the length of the deck and back.
The captain approached them. More words were exchanged. The bargaining had begun. In a few minutes, Mary's fetters were removed and she left the ship with the blond man, while the dark-haired farmer signed a voucher for the captain.
Constance tapped down her panic. Mary was more than a fellow prisoner. She was Constance's only friend.
Of a sudden, the captain pointed to Constance and the farmer turned in her direction. He narrowed his eyes, finished his transaction with the captain, and headed to the half deck.
She returned her attention to the young man in front of her. He still had hold of her hair, but he was focused on Cooper.
"... a gen-u-ine lady, she is," the first mate was saying.
"Then why was she transported?" the man asked.
"Oh, we didn't ask questions. Not our job to ask questions."
She rolled her eyes.
"You have papers for her?"
"No, he does not," Constance replied.
Cooper grabbed her arm. "Keep quiet, missy, or you'll be the sorrier for it."
"Looking for a bride, Gerald?" The dark-haired farmer had reached the half deck.
The man who must have been Gerald released her hair and jumped back. "Drew! No, not at all."
"Is she for sale?" Drew asked Cooper.
"As a tobacco bride?"
Drew turned back to Gerald and raised an eyebrow.
"Now, Drew, it is not what it appears. I was merely curious."
"You gave up the right to be curious the moment you married my sister."
Gerald's face filled with color. "Actually, it was you I was thinking of," he sputtered.
Drew lifted both brows this time.
Gerald swallowed. "I, uh, just thought if you found someone of an, uh, acceptable nature, you might be interested."
"And you deem this female acceptable?"
Gerald paused. "They say she is a lady of the realm, Drew."
"She has red hair, and I absolutely abhor red hair"
She stiffened. Gerald's face suffused with color. Although her hair was more auburn than red, Gerald's hair was almost orange, it was so bright.
"Your pardon. I did not know."
"Well, well, well. What have we here? Looking for a bride, Master O'Connor?" A scrawny, slovenly man with more teeth missing than not swaggered onto the half deck.
Tension bounced between the three men. Drew put on his hat, shifted his attention to Constance, and tipped his brim. "If you will excuse me, miss." He, along with his brother-in-law, moved past her, past the man with the missing teeth, and past two other farmers now approaching the half deck.
The scraggy man watched them leave and ejected tobacco-colored saliva onto the wooden planks as he followed their progress.
"Emmett," greeted one of the advancing farmers. He and his companion both had great bushy black beards, jolly faces, and rounded bellies. Perhaps they were kin.
"Woodrum," Emmett said, then turning to her, grabbed her cheeks and squeezed until her mouth gaped open. "Well, would you look at all them teeth. Why, she's got a mouth full of 'em. How's the rest of her, Cooper? You patted her down?"
She reared back, trying to grab his arm, but the chains around her wrists and waist restricted her movement. He tightened his grip. The rank smell of him took her breath away, and if he'd had any fingernails at all, they'd have cut half-moons into her cheeks.
"No damaging of the goods, matey, until after you buy her," Cooper said. "Pat all you want, but don't be leaving any bruises."
She stiffened. Emmett released her with a shove, and she would have fallen backward if the big man called Woodrum hadn't caught her elbow. Once she was steady, he relaxed his hold, then let go of her completely.
Emmett raked his gaze up and down her frame, rubbing his hands against his puny chest. "Why's she up here away from them other brides?"
"She's one of them ladies of the realm, she is," Cooper responded. "And she'll cost you a few more tobaccy leaves than them others."
"What proof you got fer yer claim? I say she's nothing more than a quail plucked right off them London alleyways." He eyed her again. "She shore got what it takes to do the job, and I ain't gonna be paying out a bunch of sot weed for used goods."
Woodrum scratched his cheek. "How much are you asking for her?"
"Two hundred pounds," Cooper answered.
Emmett harrumphed. "Of tobaccy? You'll not be gettin' two hundred pounds for a light skirt."
"She's a gen-u-ine lady, mate, but no bloke's a forcin' you to claim her. We already got us a bid for her, we do."
Emmett furrowed his brows. "From who?"
Woodrum and his silent companion looked at each other, caution evident in their expressions. Emmett's eyes took on an unnatural brilliance. Constance didn't know what game the first mate was playing, but she would hold her tongue for now.
"O'Connor, you say?" Emmett asked. "How much did he offer?"
"Then why's the maid still here?"
"She has to be paid for in tobaccy only. No vouchers. The capt'n wouldn't release her or take her off the block before collecting payment. O'Connor went to collect his sot weed."
As far as she knew, that was an outright lie, but she couldn't be certain.
The merciless sun beat down upon them. Sweat trickled down Emmett's face and into his snarled beard. "Well, ain't that interesting." He wiped his hands against his backside, then looked to the first mate. "May I?"
"Help yourself," Cooper replied.
Emmett reached for her.
She leaned away from him. "Touch me, and I'll see you flogged before the morrow's sun appears on the horizon."
Emmett's eyebrows shot up to his hairline. "Ho, ho! Would you listen to that? A saucy one, ain't she?" Cackling, he rubbed his hands together.
"Leave off, Emmett," Woodrum said, grabbing Emmett's arm. "It's clear that she is healthy and there is no padding beneath her garment."
Emmett's lip curled. "What's it to you, Woodrum?"
"Either up Drew's wager or keep your hands to yourself."
"I ain't makin' no bid till I test the goods."
Without taking his eyes off Emmett, Woodrum handed his hat to his companion, removed his coat, and relinquished that as well. He slowly began to roll up his sleeves.
The man's belly may have been round, but his arms and chest appeared to be solid rock. "You'll not touch her unless you pay for the privilege."
Smelling a fight, the farmers on the upper deck had begun to crowd close.
Emmett slowly lowered his hands. "Two hundred twenty, Cooper. I'll give you two hundred twenty pounds for her."
"Two twenty-five," Woodrum countered.
It was time to speak up. "Gentlemen," she interjected, "this is really all quite unnecessary. I am not a tobacco bride. I am the daughter of an earl. The captain kidnapped me and is trying to sell me unlawfully. As soon as the governor comes aboard, I will have an audience with him and will then be freed and on my way back to London."
Her statement, made during one of those unfortunate moments when every person in the crowd, for whatever reason, is silent all at once, carried across the entire breadth of the ship.
The quiet that followed her pronouncement was fraught with shock. On the heels of that, a huge swell of laughter and guffaws from the whole company of men rose to alarming levels. Even Woodrum was amused.
"Oh, she's a wicked one, she is," Emmett cackled. "Where's the capt'n?"
The crowd parted, and the captain took the steps two at a time. Woodrum and his friend receded into the crowd.
Emmett grasped the captain's hand. "I'll give you a whole hogshead for her, capt'n, and while my field boy rolls it down here, I'll be celebrating at the meetinghouse."
The captain pursed his lips for a moment, then broke into a grin. "Three hundred pounds it is, then. Gentlemen, Goodman Emmett here has purchased himself one high-born bride."
The men roared their approval and surged forward, encircling Emmett. He put an X on the voucher and exchanged it for a receipt from the captain. The excitement escalated and the crowd pulled Emmett off the half deck and further away from her. He twisted around. The depraved promise in his eyes projected itself into her very soul.
Bile converged in her throat. She was going to be sick. Forsooth, she was going to be sick right here, right now.
Help me, Lord, help me. Where is the governor? Where are you, Lord? Please, please. Help me.
As one, the company moved from the ship to the shore. And on, she supposed, to the celebration.
Chills from within shot through her body, causing a series of bumps to erupt along her arms and legs. Then an all-consuming anger at the incredible injustice of it all made her blood surge. Her resolve solidified and she focused in on the captain.
"How dare you!" she cried. "You will not get away with this. Mark you, if you do not arrange an audience with the governor at once, I will create a commotion of such magnitude they will write legends about it."
The captain did not even bother to acknowledge her. "Throw her back in the hold, Cooper," he said over his shoulder as he descended the steps.
She filled her lungs with the intention of letting out a scream the likes of which would not be ignored. Before she could release it, the first mate squeezed a band of skin between her neck and her shoulder.
Debilitating pain cut off her scream and buckled her knees. She crumpled to the ground. Cooper did not let go but followed her to the floor. She whimpered, trying to pull away from the torturous vice his fingers created.
His hot, foul breath invaded her ear. "Not one sound, dovey. Not one."
Chapter TwoCONSTANCE LAY SHIVERING and alone belowdecks. Darkness entombed the hold. Midnight had passed, but morning was still more than a few hours away.
She felt certain the men's celebration was over, for the balance of brides had been picked up long ago. All except for her.
She tried not to let desperation fill her. If the governor had put in an appearance, it was after Cooper had forced her back into the hold and secured her to the wall. With that opportunity gone, she knew there would be no other. At least not anytime soon. And by the time she did see the governor, it would be too late.
She would belong to a man. An odious, vulgar man who inspired revulsion, loathing, and horror. A man who, in the eyes of this colony. would have complete dominion over her. Who would have the right to do with her as he saw fit.
Her stomach clinched and she pushed herself up off the rough planks and heaved once again. Nothing left.
She'd managed to hold her fears at bay until the last bride had been led to her doom. When the trapdoor had closed behind that poor woman, it was the first time in over eight weeks that Constance had been completely alone. And it terrified her. The dark, damp, malodorous deck that had felt so cramped and hemmed in now loomed over her with a soundless assault.
The irons around her waist and wrists weighted her down. Collapsing onto the slats, she vaguely heard the scurrying of a rat echo off the walls of the hold. A fresh rush of tears spilled from her eyes.
Have you heard my cries, Lord? Have you destroyed my enemy? Is that why I am still here?
As if in answer, the squeak of the trapdoor reached her ears just as light from a lantern reached her eyes, She covered her eyes with her arm, the clanking of her chains ricocheting around her.
The heavy tread of the mate clomping down the steps sent her heart into a terrible gallop. She curled into a tight ball. Please. Please. Spare me, Lord. Rescue me. Please!
The crewman's smell reached her before he did. "The call to reckoning has come, wench. Up with ye, now. Yer man's arrived and it's anxious he is to take possession of ye."
In a pig's eye, she thought. A great calm settled upon her. She slowly unfurled, pulled herself into a sitting position, and looked up to see who had the late night watch. Arman. A beastly excuse of a man.
He removed the lock attaching her to the wall and pulled the chain from around her waist. Grabbing the irons around her wrists, he yanked her to her feet. The room swirled round, but Arman gave her no time to gain her sea legs.
She stumbled. He shoved her forward. She fell hard on her knees, pain shooting up her legs to her back and neck.
"Get up," he snarled, jerking her back to her feet. "You'll not be playing yer high-and-mighty games with me, missy. Ye might work yer wiles upon Cooper, but yer nothin' more than a hen to that struttin' rooster on the uppers, and if ye think to be givin' him or me any troubles, it'll go the worse for ye."
She kept her face expressionless, but she would not cooperate with Arman or the rooster. And she was prepared to do whatever it took to free herself from the knave.
When they made the upper deck, she scanned the area for the despicable Emmett man that had purchased her. He was not there. Instead, Arman led her to stand in front of the dark-haired farmer they called Drew O'Connor.
What was he doing here? Was he to take her to Emmett? But, no, it had been clear those two were not on friendly terms. Confusion clouded her thoughts.
"Remove the fetters," O'Connor said.
Excerpted from A BRIDE most BEGRUDGING by DEEANNE GIST Copyright © 2005 by Deeanne Gist.
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