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Sea of Ruin
Author: Pam Godwin

For Shea

Your beautiful soul

can be seen from space.

 

 

“Where there is ruin,

there is hope for a treasure.”

Rumi

 

 

September 1714

Province of Carolina

 

 

Charleston. To anyone settling here, it was a dazzling frontier of beauty and opportunity. Its denizens comprised of wealthy planters sailing from the English colony of Barbados and the Yamasee natives fighting to destroy the white invaders.

Then there was me, the bastard daughter of noble blood, willing to do anything to escape this life.

Though I was born here fourteen years ago, I had no interest in the land or its wars. I longed for the sea, to feel the deck rocking beneath my feet, to hear the wind drumming against sailcloth, and to wear salt and spume upon my tattered sleeves.

My mother, however, didn’t care a whit about what I wanted.

“Stop fidgeting.” She pried my clenched fingers from the rib-crushing bodice of my gown.

Her scowl distorted the stately lines of a face that had once been the envy of high society. Her eyes, cerulean blue like mine, simmered with resentment as she scrutinized the chintz monstrosity she forced me to wear.

“Can I remove the pannier? Please, Mother?” I yanked at the cumbersome undergarment, my voice pitching to a whine. “God rot it, I can’t move!”

The hidden wire hoops sat on my hips like bread baskets on a pack animal. I pivoted left to right, taking up three times as much space as a grown man. It would be impossible to mount my horse in this stultifying contraption. Not that the countess would allow me near the barn on this day.

“Really, Benedicta, you’re giving me a megrim.” She stood a head taller than me, her golden hair pinned into a coiffure of ironed ringlets and ornamented with a plume of feathers. “I spent a fortnight making this gown, and by God’s heart, you will wear it with dignity.”

To hell with God’s heart. I swore in spite of his teeth. But never in the presence of the Lady Abigail.

“I didn’t ask for this.” I motioned at the gown and the ornate furnishings of my bedchamber. “For any of this.”

“I didn’t ask for you. Yet here you are, an ungrateful, quarrelsome hoyden, born with both fists clenched.”

It was always the same when the countess looked at me. She didn’t see her only child, a daughter to love, or a girl with earnest dreams.

She only saw her shame. Her ruination. The reason she was exiled.

Shifting toward the window, I sought a brighter view outside the glass panes. The dawn-lit sea stretched eastward from the sandy shoreline, aglitter with waves I couldn’t hear from my bedchamber.

I’d never ventured beyond the port of Charleston, never even stepped foot aboard a ship. But England flowed through my veins. And constricted my chest. Quite literally.

“It’s too tight.” I reached back, clawing at the stays that pinched my spine. “It hurts to breathe.”

“Then don’t.”

“Don’t breathe? For how long?”

“For as long as it takes to secure an offer.”

An offer I didn’t want.

I endeavored to live on a ship with a crew of cursing tars, not in a house with a line of biddable servants. I wanted to ride a horse with my feet in stirrups, not sidesaddle and upright. I fancied stout ale over watery tea, sword-fighting over sewing, and would rather burn my nose in the sun than sit in a stuffy parlor.

And this gown? I stifled an unladylike grunt. What I wouldn’t give for a pair of trousers.

Which was why, as a girl on the cusp of a betrothed marriage, I was undesirable, uncooperative, and entirely unfit for this.

Unfortunately, the countess didn’t sympathize with my position or my improper attributes.

With a hand circling my arm, she dragged me to the dressing table and examined my appearance in the mirror.

“Well…” She tilted her head and sniffed. “I’m not a seamstress, but I daresay I’ve seen nothing so smart outside of London. If you remember your station and keep your mouth shut, the gown alone might win his favor.”

My reflection glared back at me, clad in the flounciest, most attention-grabbing dress in Carolina. Striped in shades of pink, the skirt opened in front to reveal a white petticoat trimmed in a dozen too many frills.

The deep square-cut bosom accentuated my lack of breasts and bony shoulders. Trumpet-shaped sleeves caught up at my elbows, which naturally, would be dragged across plates of gravy and sweet cream before the day’s end.

But as much as I despised the dress, I understood the necessity of pomp and ceremony and my mother’s struggle to achieve it.

The upper class had clothing made for them, and the countess managed to live amongst that charmed circle, despite having no financial worth of her own.

Lady Abigail Leighton, the only child of the ninth Earl Leighton, inherited her title upon the earl’s death. But nothing more. When her inglorious affair with a commoner was made evident by my illegitimate existence, she lost her dowry, her family, and her coveted status in the beau monde.

With no support in England, she was forced abroad—pregnant, destitute, alone—and found refuge here with distant cousins. They took her in, and fourteen years later, we remained in their opulent home, made use of their servants, and ate their lavish meals.

But none of this belonged to us. The master of the house, while ever gracious, could toss us out on our backsides without warning or reason.

We were insolvent tenants. My mother’s ruined reputation ensured that was all she would ever be unless she found a way to reenter society.

I ran my hands over the gown, gilded in her meticulous efforts. She spun, wove, and fashioned our garments out of necessity. Every spool of thread was a cost she couldn’t afford, every cut of cotton a labor of determination, every stitch a stab at a better future.

A better future for her. All I wanted was adventure and a pair of trousers.

She turned at the sound of a knock on the bedchamber door. “Enter.”

“My lady.” The parlor maid hurried in, ducking her bonnet-clad head as she offered the countess a gentleman’s calling card.

Moisture trickled down my spine, and the stays grew uncomfortably tighter. I didn’t need to glance at the card to know it announced the arrival of the Marquess of Grisdale.

“I’ll receive him in the blue parlor,” my mother said. “Prepare the tea.”

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