On the run from a brute of an aristocratic employer, Eleanor Morgan escapes from England to America, the land of the free, for the opportunity to serve an upstanding Charles Town family. But freedom is hard to come by as an indentured servant, and downright impossible when she’s forced to agree to an even harsher contract—marriage to a man she’s never met.
Backwoodsman Samuel Heath doesn’t care what others think of him—but his young daughter’s upbringing matters very much. The life of a trapper in the Carolina backcountry is no life for a small girl, but neither is abandoning his child to another family. He decides it’s time to marry again, but that proves to be an impossible task. Who wants to wed a murderer?
Both Samuel and Eleanor are survivors, facing down the threat of war, betrayal, and divided loyalties that could cost them everything, but this time they must face their biggest challenge ever . . .Love.
|Publisher:||Barbour Publishing, Incorporated|
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The Captive Heart
By Michelle Griep
Barbour Publishing, Inc.Copyright © 2016 Michelle Griep
All rights reserved.
My precious Lord;
My only hope;
My Saviour, how I need You now.
Eleanor Morgan repeated the words, over and over, scrubbing her fingernails more vigorously with each repetition. Prayer was always better than blood. Perhaps if she focused on the simple child's verse she taught her charges, she wouldn't feel like heaving. She bit her lip, trapping a scream behind her teeth. A merciless idea. Better had she cried out at the unfairness of it all, for now blood wasn't merely under her nails. Saltiness warmed the tip of her tongue.
A rap on her chamber door stopped her scrubbing. The nailbrush clattered into the basin, her heart into her stomach. Before she could think, she turned and snatched one of the brass candlesticks off the bureau. Hot wax spilled onto her skin, the pain barely registering. Duke or not, this time she'd do more than scratch the man's face. Lecher. Beast. She raised the makeshift weapon, the flame extinguishing as the door swung open.
A tiny woman in a lace wrap entered. Eleanor choked. The candlestick slipped from her hand and crashed to the floor.
My precious Lord;
My only hope ...
Duchess Brougham's gaze darted to the rolling candlestick, then back to Eleanor's face. One of her brows lifted.
Eleanor rushed forward and sank to her knees in front of the woman, not caring to grab a dressing gown to cover her shift. Why bother? Humiliation was cloak enough. "Your Grace, I swear I did not encourage your husband's advances. Please, you must believe me. I would never —"
"Rise, Miss Morgan." The lady waited, a single furrow marring her forehead, until Eleanor stood on shaky legs. Was that compassion on her face ... or resentment?
Duchess Brougham sighed, long and loud, as if she might expel whatever demon anguished her soul.
Eleanor knew she ought say something, but all her words dried up and blew away like the last leaf of autumn.
Slowly, the lady's mouth curved into a fragile smile. "Did you not wonder, Miss Morgan, why we have had four governesses in the space of a year?"
Eleanor grimaced. She would have inquired had not pride muddled her thinking. The position of governess in a duke's household didn't seem nearly as prestigious anymore. La, what a foolish dolt she'd become.
"You'll never aspire to anything higher than a trollop, girl."
The sting of her father's prophecy slapped her with more brutal force than she'd dealt her employer. She lifted fingertips to her own cheek, coaxing out a whispered confession. "I assumed lack on the part of the other women, Your Grace, and for that I am woefully repentant."
Duchess Brougham's eyes glinted with an odd intensity. "The lack is in my husband. I had hoped that this time ... for you see, the children dearly love you ..." Her voice cracked, and she shook her head. "It is a sorry business, but there is nothing to be done for it. For your sake, Miss Morgan, you should leave. Now. Walk out the door and do not come back."
Leave? The word made as little sense as finding the undressed duke in her bedchamber earlier. Eleanor wrapped her arms around herself, gaining what comfort might be found in the action. If nothing else, perhaps it would hold together her grip on reality. "But it is the middle of the night, Your Grace. Where am I to go? I have no relations, no one to —"
"You do not understand the severity of the duke's anger." Though a head shorter than Eleanor, the lady grew in stature as she lifted her chin. "You have done more than rebuke him. He shall have to account for the scratches on his face at the club tomorrow. The passions grafted onto wounded pride are the most inveterate, and my husband's appearance is his pride. At best, the duke will see you never again work in England. At worst ..."
She didn't finish the sentence. She didn't need to. Just last week, Eleanor had heard the downstairs help gossiping about the fate of young Joe. For naught but a cross look at the duke, the lad now resided in a holding cell at Newgate on a trumped-up charge of thievery.
Eleanor retreated to the side of her bed and sank onto the counterpane, grateful to the mattress for holding her up. All her dreams of becoming London's finest governess had just been yanked from beneath her, the unfairness of it staggering. Fresh tears burned tracks down her cheeks.
"There, there, Miss Morgan." The duchess took a step toward her, then stopped and clasped her hands. Though Eleanor longed for a comforting touch, the woman would approach no closer. She had already breached propriety by coming to Eleanor's chamber.
Drawing in a ragged breath, Eleanor gave in to a moment of self-pity, hating how weak she was in light of the lady's strength and dignity.
"Do not despair so." The duchess's words were quiet. Intimate. As if she were speaking as much to herself as to her governess.
Eleanor looked up, surprised to see the lady's eyes glistening with unshed tears. Indeed, the woman's face was a portrait of misery, and why not? How awful it must be to live with an unfaithful husband.
"Now then." The duchess sniffed, her shoulders straightening with the movement. "I have a cousin in Charles Towne, Mr. William Taggerton. I shall send him a missive, posthaste, recommending you. Lord knows his children could use a proper education in that uncivilized land. Book yourself passage, and I shall have him meet you with the fare once you land. The Colonies are the best I can manage on such short notice."
The Colonies? Eleanor swallowed back a sour taste. The tales she'd heard! The sideshows she'd glimpsed of savages and ruffians and wild animals. This was where she would spend the rest of her days? A shiver charged across her shoulders, leaving uncertainty in its wake. But besides a beggar's cup — or debtor's prison — what choice did she have?
None. For a moment she nearly gave in to opening the cage door to a wild hysteria. But truly, what would that accomplish other than possibly attracting the duke back to this chamber?
Sucking in a breath, she stood. So be it, then. If that were her fate, she'd do her best to not only embrace it but to conquer it. Mayhap across a sea, in a land of foreigners and anonymity, she'd finally be successful at blotting out her father's words. Indeed. She would be a success or die in the trying.
"I thank you for your kindness, but ..." She paused and angled her head for a clear view of the lady's face. "Why? Why do this for me?"
The duchess smiled. "You are a rare one, Miss Morgan. I have appreciated your candor, spoken with such grace and humility. An exceptional trait in a servant. You, I shall remember."
Blinking, Eleanor fought another round of tears. Had anyone ever been so kind? "Thank you, Your Grace. Neither shall I forget you."
"Pack up your things and ready yourself to leave. I will return shortly with a note of reference."
The duchess departed before Eleanor could think how to reply. In truth, though, what more was there to say? She relit the candle and tucked her two spare gowns into her traveling bag. By the time the lady returned, Eleanor had dressed haphazardly, slipped into her mantle, and tied her hat ribbon tightly beneath her chin.
"Here is the note, and also some money." The duchess stood in the doorway, holding out her hand. Creased and folded, a single banknote rested atop her palm along with a small parchment. "I grant 'tis not a large amount, but it should at least keep you fed on your journey."
Eleanor hesitated. She wasn't owed any wages for several more months. It didn't seem right, taking money from this lady. Still, her own paltry coins would get her nowhere.
Duchess Brougham stepped into the room only so far as to set her offering down upon the bureau. Before she turned to leave, she reached toward Eleanor, then slowly let her hand drop. "Godspeed, my dear."
With the closing of the door, the candle sputtered, fighting for life in the shadows left by the lady's departure. Eleanor stood, dazed, knowing she should move, should breathe, should ... something. How had her life come to this? And worse, what did the future hold? Gooseflesh rose on her forearms, and she fought the urge to whirl about and dive beneath the bedstead. She hadn't realized that allowing self-pity to enter her thoughts also invited fear to tag along, hand-in-hand.
Bear up. Bear up!
Despite her inner rallying cry, her heart skipped a beat. Too bad the silly thing didn't quit altogether, sparing her the horrors of traveling alone, unprotected. Bowing her head, she closed her eyes.
My precious Lord;
My only hope;
My Saviour, how I need You now.
Two months later
Clutching the ship's railing with white knuckles, Eleanor closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. The salty tang of sea air did little to remove the stench clinging to her skirts and skin. Would she ever escape it? After seven weeks of sharing a coffin-sized pallet with two other women, it would take a miracle to scrub away the reek that soured her body, mind, and spirit.
Water purled against the hull, and she sighed, thoroughly sick of the sea. If land weren't sighted soon, she just might pitch herself into the black waters below and be done with it. For a moment, she held her breath, calculating just how long it would take before abandoning life to a cold, cold grave — then shivered from the horror of her twisted thoughts.
The question pulled her safely back to the topside of the Charming Lucy, where she stood with one of her bunkmates. "No more than you, Molly. No more than any of us."
"Aye ... I suppose."
Eleanor glanced at the woman beside her, surprised once again at the courage contained in such a small frame. She herself could barely endure the voyage with the loss of comfort, her dignity, her dreams — and even her small valise, which had been stolen before she boarded. But Molly had lost so much more.
She laid her fingers atop Molly's arm, hoping to impart some measure of compassion. "Forgive me. I am a poor companion today, I think. I cannot imagine what you must be feeling. I am so sorry your husband ... that he ..."
"La, miss, don't fret." Molly patted her hand, then pulled back. "'Tis a sorry lot the fever took him. Dreadful way for Freddy to go, but his suffering's ended now. And truth be told ... I hardly knew him."
Eleanor gasped. "But you were his wife!"
Molly cast her a sideways glance.
Heat rushed to her cheeks. Would she never learn to keep her thoughts to herself? Why did the very same qualities she'd abhorred in her father flourish in her like so many weeds? "Oh, Molly, I have no right to voice such an astonishment. Please forgive —"
"No offense taken, miss. Why, you've been the gentlest soul I've encountered on this whole journey. The thing is" — she peeked farther down the railing where the finer ladies gathered, then inched closer to Eleanor — "Freddy and I were wed naught but two days afore we set sail, and even then I'd known him scarcely a fortnight. He was a charmer, but a stranger, nonetheless. Why, I feel I know you and Biz better than I ever did Freddy."
Eleanor frowned. Overhead, the sun ducked behind a cloud, as elusive as Molly's words. Though the woman's sentiment was common, Eleanor could barely understand it. Marriage for a governess was out of the question, but it didn't mean she hadn't considered what it might be like to be wed. If the opportunity were ever offered her — which it never would — she'd marry for love alone. Nothing less. On that she would not be moved.
Apparently Molly held other convictions. From the corner of her eye, Eleanor studied the woman's profile. Long lashes, surprisingly smooth skin, hair the rich color of dried tea leaves fresh from the Indies, though it'd not been washed in two months, or more. Yet even garbed in a filthy gown, there was no denying Molly's beauty. Surely many men had vied for her attention.
The ship canted, and Eleanor grabbed the railing. "Why, Molly? Why marry a man you did not know? The gentry do it out of necessity, but surely you were not forced into such a union."
A small smile curved her lips. "Nah, weren't nothing like that. Freddy, he ... well, he had this dream. It were like a faerie tale, miss. Freddy said after our five-year service, we'd have a little house on a little plot of land, with little ones runnin' around everywhere — all bright eyed and full bellied."
Her smile grew, lighting Molly's whole face and nearly pulling Eleanor headlong into Freddy's dream.
"Freddy's words filled me clear up with hope, miss. First time I ever felt so light. Like I were floating. You ever felt that way?"
A shadowed memory fought to surface. Light, love, promise ... despair. Even after all these years, the hurt was too deep, too raw. She blew out a sigh, dispelling the smallest whispers of remembrance, refusing to examine them. "Not often enough, I am afraid."
"Fear? Pah!" The words barged in from behind, accompanied by the clink of chain and drag of a cannonball across wooden planking.
A wad of chewed tobacco hit the deck beside Eleanor's skirt. A wiry woman, all bones and bluster, stared at her with eyes so blue and intense, it was a dare to simply meet her gaze. Eleanor couldn't help but smile. There was nothing subtle about Biz Hunter. The woman was inappropriate from the tip of her cursing tongue to the bottom hem of the man's waistcoat and jacket she wore over her filthy skirt. Even so, Eleanor admired her spunk and daring, though she claimed to be a year junior to Eleanor.
"Fear's for cowards!" Biz's voice rose to rival the flapping of the sails. "You won't last a day if you give in to such weak-kneed rot."
"We can't all be as brave as you, Biz." Molly's quiet tone couldn't have contrasted more.
"Aye." Biz cocked a brow. "That's a truth now, ain't it?"
In light of the sun, which had finally decided to break free from the clouds, a smirk slanted a defiant streak across Biz's face. Was the woman truly so fearless? Eleanor brushed an errant strand of hair from her eyes to gain a better view. "Do you not have a care who your new master will be?"
"Hah! I know who my master is." She thumped her thumb against her chest. "Me!"
"I own I'm a bit nervous." Molly smoothed her palms along her skirt, again and again, further wearing the threadbare fabric. Any more of that and she'd need to patch her patches. "Starvation in a familiar alley seems a mite more comforting than perishing on a foreign street."
Biz snorted. "The way I heared it, we're going to a land o' milk an' honey. And the way I sees it, the law did me a favor by packing me off on this tub o' boards. Good riddance to London town." She flourished her hand in the air, as one might flick off a horsefly.
Eleanor bit her lip instead of rolling her eyes at the woman's dramatics. No sense refuting Biz's embellishments. She lifted a smile to Molly instead. "I am sure Biz is correct. Whoever puts down money for you would not willingly see you perish. That would be a bad investment."
"La, miss." Molly quit smoothing her skirt. "Yer so smart."
"Not smart enough to travel with the real ladies, though, are you?" Biz nodded toward the upper-class passengers clustered near the bow. "I wonder why."
The challenge hung heavy on the air, like a squall about to break. As much as she liked Biz, she also wouldn't mind slapping the smirk off the woman's lips. "Curiosity is a dangerous virtue at times."
"And other times it pays off." Biz's eyes gleamed. Was she provoking on purpose, or did she really know something?
"All right, me beauties." One of Captain Fraser's men sauntered along the bulwark and joined them at the railing. The smell of hemp and hard work accompanied him. This was a change, for other than lewd comments, the sailors mostly kept their distance. Eleanor had thought it strange at first, until she realized were she in their shoes, she'd stay an arm's length away from death and disease as well.
The man lifted a finger, indicating the stairwell to the hold. "Time to take it below."
Excerpted from The Captive Heart by Michelle Griep. Copyright © 2016 Michelle Griep. Excerpted by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc..
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