Friday, March 21, 2014
A Taste of Friday First Chapters with Jo Grafford and Breaking Ties
By Jo Grafford
Sometimes murder isn't messy, up-close, and personal as many people imagine it to be. Sometimes it is distant and impersonal – as simple as crossing a line through a name on a sheet of paper. Or one hundred and fifteen names in our case.
Chapter One – Leaving
Portsmouth, England, April 26, 1587
"Yer bum's hanging out the window, Rose!" My brother banged his empty mug on the inn table. He ran both hands through his hair, as red as my own, standing each flaming lock on end.
My lips turned up despite the heaviness in my chest. It felt good to hear him lapse into the Gaelic brogue of our childhood. "Och, Donnen!" I reached across the table to clasp his large hands and grimaced at the stench of salmon and sweat hanging in the air. "I dinna bring you here to quarrel. 'Tis my first offer of employment in weeks."
I dared not share my other reason for leaving.
"Nay, ye can stay with me till ye find a different job. Crossing the Atlantic unwed is bad enough, but these—" He shook my upraised palms. "—are ink stains. Blast it all, yer a clerk, not a sailor."
"Indeed?" Saints alive, he acted as if I were still twelve instead of eighteen. "Well, good news. I shall be accompanied by other women – whole families of people, for that matter – and 'tis a clerk they need."
"Only because—" Donnen glanced around the room and lowered his voice. "—Only because the other employees are abandoning their posts right and left." His glare was fierce. "Rumor has it, yer entire fleet of ships is bound straight for Davy’s Locker. I don't suppose that came up during the bloomin' interview?"
I held his gaze evenly. "Aye, Madam Dare mentioned some difficulty in recruiting new colonists. ‘Tis not every person ye run across who wishes to leave house and home and take all they possess to the other side of the world." I withdrew my hands from his and clasped them in my lap. "Nevertheless, our ship leaves in an hour, and I fully intend to be on it. If ye have something else to say…"
"Where do I begin?" Donnen shook his head in disgust. "'Pon my honor, the entire venture is cursed." He spoke of land to be gained in the New World, sabotage, and blood money. I beheld him with growing concern as he raved like a man deep in his cups though he nursed only his first pint of ale. Come to think of it, his hands cradling the mug should have been more callused, more scarred. Did he not serve as a groom, after all, on a nobleman's estate in London?
Truth is, I did not much care if he was right or wrong. I just wanted away from London, away from every reminder of what I had lost. The option of moving back to the tenant farm held little appeal. As greatly as I missed them, I did not wish to burden my family with one more mouth to feed and would no longer be of much use in the fields anyway. Living amongst educated and genteel folk these past few years had made me too soft.
We left the tavern and strolled along the busy Portsmouth wharves, but Donnen was not in the mood for sightseeing. Ignoring the cries of the hawkers, he spared not a glance at the graceful seabirds circling overhead. Instead he alternated between lecturing and cajoling the entire way. I tightened my grip on his arm as we neared our destination.
"Ye'll give me one good reason at least." He led me onto the pier and faced me squarely. I resisted the urge to lay my face against his broad chest and weep. I did not wish for him to become embroiled in my affairs. A giant of a man, he would insist on defending my honor, but nothing good would come of a dual. If Donnen won, he would be charged with the murder of a nobleman. If he lost…
A horn sounded from the ship. I threw my arms around him.
I felt his quick intake of breath and drew back to place a finger over his lips before he could say more. "I do what I must."
Certain I would never see him again, my eyes misted as his expression seared itself into my memory — the grim set to his mouth, the deep-seated concern in his eyes that shared the same shade of green as mine. He nodded and raised his jaw, finally accepting my resolve to leave. Either that or he knew I could be as stubborn as he, once my mind was set.
"Give Mum, Da…" My breath hitched, "and our brothers my love." I dared not say more for fear of breaking down altogether. I boarded without looking back.
A tall, reed-thin man looked down his nose at me at the top of the gangway. "Your name, miss?"
I gulped and straightened to my full height, which was approximately eye-level with his chin. "I am Rose Payne, sir, the new ship's clerk."
His brow furrowed. One hand darted for spectacles hanging from a ribbon at his side. He polished them against black knee breeches and raised them to peer more closely at me. He grunted and turned his attention to the half-rolled parchment in his hand. I worried my lower lip between my teeth as precious seconds ticked away. Sweet Mary, please help him find my name on the list. I need this job. I dared not make the sign of the cross as I prayed. Such Catholic rituals were heavily frowned upon now that the queen had replaced the pope as Supreme Governor over the new and reformed Church of England.
The man lowered his spectacles at last. "You are to report to Lady Dare." His lips pursed as if tasting something sour, but his voice was not unkind.
Relieved, I stumbled my way onto the ship across rigging and cables.
"Step smartly there, miss," he called after me.
Unsure of my new employer's whereabouts, I stepped further into the hum of activity. I seemed to be standing in the belly of the ship. Sailors swarmed like ants over a smaller deck in the bow overlooking the water. Squinting against the sunlight, I spied a pair of rowboats at center deck. One bore a half dozen bleating sheep. The other was lashed face down to the planking. I pivoted slowly. Another pair of decks rose like large steps to form the stern of the ship.
The tallest woman I'd ever seen stalked up the gangway in a gown the color of river mud. She wore an arched brim hat tipped low on her forehead and sturdy men's boots. A flintlock rested against her shoulder and unpinned hair trailed down her bodice in a loose braid. I followed her progress across deck until another passenger trod on my toes. I yelped and glanced down to ensure my thin leather uppers were still intact. My shoes were in desperate need of a cobbler's attention.
The ship's horn sounded again. I watched in a daze as the fanfare commenced for launching. A dozen or so gentlemen stood at the railing with arms about their wives, waving to family and friends on shore. A pair of lads scampered past me, an enormous barking mastiff at their heels. I hastily drew back my skirts.
Crewmen slithered like lightening up and down the shrouds. The men below echoed every command shouted above. Then the shouting ceased, and their voices swelled in a singsong chant. Burly men pressed their shoulders against the spokes of a horizontal wheel, lunging forward to the rhythm of the shanty. The anchor came into view dripping water and seaweed. Large canvas sails billowed downward. The sailors' hands flew to pull them taut and fasten them into place as they hoisted us into full sail.
Oh farewell to thee, my Mary
A thousand times adieu
I'm bound to cross the ocean, girl
Once more to part from you
Once more to part from you, fine girl!
Our sails caught the wind. We slowly picked up speed. I tasted the bitter thrill of success as the coastline grew smaller. I was leaving with little more than my integrity and the clothes on my back. Donnen would give our parents my love, and they could continue working on the tenant farm — none the wiser about my true reason for leaving. Da would be proud that his only daughter had ventured off to the see the world after, of course, he got over his rage for my failure to travel home and bid them adieu in person. Alas, I’d not had the time to pay them one last visit.
I blinked back tears. I would begin a new chapter wherever we landed. It was almost too simple.
My interview had been a hasty event three days earlier. Lady Dare had not batted an eye when I declared my sudden interest in becoming a colonist. Nor had she asked for a letter of reference. The only emotion on her plain features was relief at my willingness to hire on as the ship's clerk. Apparently the last one had abandoned his post, giving neither advance notice nor an explanation.
The sailors' voices pulsed louder from the exertion they poured into their work.
Now when we're homeward bound, my dear,
I'll bring you silks galore.
I'll bring you jewels an' rings an' things
An' ye won't wear the weeds no more!
I did not vie for a place at the crowded railing but stood beneath the main mast, gripping my black travel bag. Portsmouth Harbor disappeared all the sooner for my blurred vision. Some of the tension oozed from my shoulders, but I was too numb to feel much of anything else. Back in London, I'd lived a fairy tale right up to, but not including, the happy ending. The familiar burn spread low in my belly. Perhaps in time we would sail far enough to escape the pain.
According to my employer, it would take six weeks to cross the Atlantic. We were the first English women to make this trip. Not expecting to get this far without a letter of reference, I had not bothered asking questions. Our mission was to set up the first permanent English colony along the coast of the Chesapeake Bay. She briefly mentioned trading with the natives and exporting timber back to England, but I had not paid much attention to the details.
Thinking of Eleanor Dare reminded me it was high time to report to her. I squared my shoulders and picked my way carefully across the cluttered deck. The ship lurched beneath me, forcing me to reach for the railing. My stomach clenched in protest. I took several deep, steadying breaths. It was then I first noticed him.
He stood at the railing several paces down from me, his eyes fixed on the water. He was no Englishman, to be sure, with skin burnished a rich shade of copper. There was quite a lot of it to see since he was shirtless. I swallowed a gasp and glanced around, but no one else appeared to be paying him any mind. Puzzled, I continued to watch the stranger from beneath my lashes.
Unlike my closely shorn countrymen, he wore his raven hair plaited into two sleek tails. Massive arms folded over a chest, harder and more corded with muscle than any field laborer I'd ever seen. His upper arm boasted a black bear-claw tattoo. Clad in a pair of buckskins, he stood barefoot, legs braced against the rocking of the ship. He stood motionless for so long I wondered if he was real. As if in response to my unspoken question, his chest rose and fell sharply.
He turned his head swiftly and caught me staring. I flushed but did not immediately lower my gaze, too stunned by his exotic beauty. His face was all hard angles from broad forehead to high cheekbones down to a squared off jaw, with lips chiseled into a stoic line.
Unease rippled through me, but I could not tear my eyes from his. Dark and rich like well-aged whiskey, they pooled with a surprising mixture of curiosity and contempt. He examined me as closely as I examined him.
I forced a tentative smile, wondering if he was a member of the sailing crew, but his cold, unblinking stare did not waver. My cheeks heated, and I returned my gaze to the water. Perhaps it was improper to greet the sailors. To be sure, they seemed to scurry about their tasks without taking any notice of us. The next time I looked up, the man was gone.
My exultation at fleeing London waned by nightfall, for I discovered I was a poor sailor. Our first meal of dry bread and salted meats did not settle well, nor did the next meal. Accustomed to fresh fruits and vegetables from the country, I heaved the contents of my belly over the railing. However nausea still tightened my belly each time the ship rode down a swell.
The first night, I lay awake listening to the snores and mumbles of five cabin mates. Though crowded, it certainly made sense to bunk the unmarried women together. Moonlight poured through the portholes and a pair of overhead grates, revealing a cabin only as long as our six straw mattresses pressed side to side. Our baggage was stacked at the head of each mattress, leaving the narrowest of walkways at our feet.
Three weeks dragged past in a blur of exhaustion and seasickness. I perched on the edge of my mattress one evening, drawing a comb shakily through my waist-length tresses. No stranger to hard times, I knew I needed to find a way to keep my food down else my chances of survival were bleak.
"You should visit the good Dr. Jones."
My hands stilled, for I'd not spoken my thoughts aloud. I glanced up at Margaret Lawrence, whose mattress lay betwixt the wall and mine. I was surprised she had spoken, for she was not one to indulge in chitchat. She hung her day gown on a hook and pulled on a night rail with quick, efficient movements.
"You are falling ill." It sounded like an accusation.
"I am fine," I mumbled, "just unaccustomed to sailing."
"As you will." Her lips thinned. "'Tis your own hide." She stretched out on the straw mattress with her back to me.
Emme Merrimouth on my other side displayed her dimples, which was particularly disconcerting given she was asleep. I studied her round, friendly face in the moonlight. Did she ever quit smiling?
Across the room, two other women spoke in hushed tones. Hardly in the frame of mind to socialize, I’d spoken little to my cabin mates beyond basic introductions. However, I possessed an uncanny gift for details and easily recalled the silvery-haired one was Helen Pierce, a widow. Her companion was Agnes Wood, a tiny, doll-like creature who pronounced her name "Annis." She ground something in a mortar with her pestle. The scent of rosemary filled the room.
The door flew open to admit our sixth cabin mate. The manly woman I'd seen on the first day stooped to enter. She and I had yet to speak directly, but I'd learned her name was Jane Mannering. She ignored us as she undressed, removing the well-worn leather boots first. She withdrew not one, but three knives from her person before flopping down onto the mattress. Nay, a fourth one slid into her palm when she unbraided her hair to brush it. Sheathed in the tiniest scabbard I'd ever seen, its ornate handle easily doubled as a decorative hairpin. What a bizarre woman! As far as I could tell, she was better armed than most of the men.
I scrambled into my gown at first dawn. Jane was already gone, her bed neatly made up. The others still slept. Determined to be gone before the others arose, I plaited my hair and wound it around my head. Punching in a handful of pins, I tied on a voluminous bonnet, effectively shielding my fiery red and gold hair from view. There was simply no way to move about unnoticed with hair the color of mine, and I found myself desiring solitude above anything else as of late. I needed time to recover from the blow of my recent breakup, to ponder how I’d ever allowed myself to become beguiled into believing myself to be secretly engaged to the duke’s son, and to grieve over the loss of him whether he deserved it or not.
My stomach rolled at the thought of another breakfast of tasteless gruel. Longing for fresh bread and a tankard of milk, I snatched up the tools of my trade – pen, ink bottle, and ledgers – then hurried above deck to wash my face and hands in one of the rainwater boxes lashed outside the railing. I hoped mightily that today we would receive our occasional ration of citrus fruit to stave off scurvy. However, it was not to be. I waved away the watery gruel to the delight of the young sailor on duty. Mayhap it meant a double serving for him. He needed it, for he was thinner than me.
Downing my ration of ale, I ignored the hunger pains by counting paces as I traversed the widest section of the deck. Twenty feet. I eyed the length of the ship in both directions and estimated it to be at least a hundred feet from bow to stern. A passenger at the rail caught my eye and waved.
I glanced about nervously, but no one else acknowledged his greeting. Doffing a top hat, he bowed low. His white-blond hair glinted in the sunlight. I clutched my ledgers tighter and bobbed a curtsey. He clapped on his hat and headed my way with purpose in his step. I ducked my head and pretended not to notice as I hurried toward the stairs.
We sailed on the Lyon. The largest of our three ships, it carried most of the colonists, including all seventeen women and nine children. The only ship in our fleet with an actual kitchen, the Lyon also stored most of our victuals. Our second rig was a flyboat. Christened the Roebuck, it bore our heaviest pieces of furniture, farm plows, and enough weaponry to arm a modest-sized fort. Our third craft was the Swallow. Small and light like its namesake, it would ferry us over the last few miles of shoaling waves to our rendezvous point at Roanoke Island. All of this I knew because I maintained the company ledgers for the City of Raleigh.
I hurried past the main level containing our cabins, library, sickbay, and kitchen and descended the second set of stairs two at a time to the central storage room. I was settling into a routine. I spent the bulk of my mornings inventorying crates and barrels stacked floor-to-ceiling atop large wooden platforms called gantries. In the afternoons, I studied the numbers, made projections, and compiled reports. Familiar now with every damp and shadowy compartment in the hull, I came up for little more than meals and an occasional breather when the temperatures grew too stifling to bear.
Inside the storage room, I stacked the ledgers on a narrow trestle table I'd claimed as my desk and pulled the first one toward me. Just enough light filtered through the portholes for me to read the last entry. Perched atop a barrel, I unstopped the ink well and dipped my pen. Perhaps if I continued to cram my head with a constant flow of numbers, it would keep the darker, more painful thoughts at bay.
"Pardon, miss." A snowy-bearded figure stepped into the room, chisel in hand. My lips twitched. With an oversized belly and arms too long for his squat frame, he resembled a gnome. A grizzled man of uncertain years stooped to enter behind him. Black stains streaked the pot he carried. The scent of tar filled the air.
"Name's Chap," the bearded one bellowed. I winced at the volume. He began tapping on the paneled walls with the blunt end of his chisel. "I be the ship's carpenter. This no good critter's Brocky, the caulker." He stopped to wipe his plump face on a sleeve. "Who might ye be, miss?"
"Me? I am… er… Rose Payne, the new clerk."
"Ah." He squatted behind a stack of crates. His voice sounded muffled. "A woman workin' down here all alone, eh? In the belly of the whale, so ter speak." He peered over a crate at me. "Can't say we be mindin' the extra comp'ny." He leered at Brocky.
I resisted the urge to groan. Though a bit rougher in appearance, they were not much different than the droves of groomsmen employed by the lords of London ever seeking to pull a willing wench into a corner for a quick tickle and squeeze.
I forced a smile. "What are ye gentlemen about on such a fine morning?"
"Lookin' fer leaks. Pluggin' 'em with tar. Hammerin' loose nails. Keepin' this brig in ship-shape so she stays on top o' the water."
"Ye do a marvelous job." I dipped my pen and wrote today's date in the ledger. "For I've seen nary a leak thus far."
Chap shifted one of the crates for better access. A dark shadow shot from beneath it. Without thinking, I whipped out a dagger, aimed and flung.
Brocky snapped to his feet, bumping his head smartly against the crossbeam. He snarled out a string of expletives. Eyeing him cautiously, I bent to retrieve my blade.
"Pray pardon me," I said when he paused to suck in a pained breath, "'Twas only a bug." I unpinned the knife from the floor and held it up. A cockroach wriggled on its tip. Its size rivaled a small mouse. I shivered. "Faith, but ye grow them big down here."
Brocky rubbed his pate eyes round as saucers.
Chap clapped him on the shoulder. "Ye best tell the lads to chaffer up and walk smart aroun' 'ere." He guffawed and slapped his knee. "Aye, she's a born crusher if I ever did see one!" Both men eyed me with new respect.
"'Tis nothing, really." Uncomfortable beneath their admiring stares, I pushed open a porthole to scrape the bug from my knife. "'Twas a crop-tending chore. My brothers and I, we had to keep the fields clear of vermin if we wanted anything left to eat come harvest time." However, it was more than that. I'd grown weary of their merciless teasing and practiced many extra hours to perfect my aim.
I made a show of returning to my work, frowning over the columns and whispering a few numbers to myself, but Chap did not take the hint. He proceeded to prattle endlessly about the design of the ship as one would a favorite son.
"She's clinker built." He tapped matter-of-factly on the overlapping planks forming the walls. "And in tip-top shape."
"Aye, thanks to your vigilance."
A pair of cavalier boots stepped into view. My gaze travelled upwards to the finely crafted cloak of navy silk and settled on his face. It was the blond man who had bowed to me on deck.
"At last I find your lair." Eyes of lightening blue swept over me and my tools of trade. "I hoped to speak with you earlier, but you seemed in quite the hurry."
"My lord," Chap and Brocky murmured, stumbling to their feet.
He waved them away. "Carry on, good men. I came to make the lady's acquaintance." He smiled, flashing a set of white teeth. "Pray do not rise. We shall converse while you work, Mistress Payne."
I frowned, unable to recall a previous introduction.
"You are surprised to hear me speak your name. Perhaps you will be less surprised when you hear mine. Christopher Cooper, at your service." He bowed low before my desk.
His name sounded familiar indeed. I stood, ignoring his protests, and curtsied. A clergyman by trade, Reverend Cooper served on the governing board for the City of Raleigh. Along with eleven others, he reported directly to the governor and held the title of Assistant.
"Please be seated. 'Tis awkward to stand on ceremony, surrounded as we are by barrels of salted beef and dried currants."
"As ye will, my lord." I fought a wave of nausea at the mention of meat.
"Please call me Christopher."
I stared, shocked. Although the surname of Cooper sounded strangely out of place for a man of his elevated lineage, company records stated he was nobly born, a member of the 3rd Baron of Kent's household.
"Oh come now, Mistress Payne. At three and twenty, I cannot be much older than you."
"Christopher. I insist. I am but a younger son and highly doubt my eldest brother's barony will carry any weight in the New World."
I stiffened. His brother's barony would carry plenty of weight aboard our ship. I would not risk my newfound position with such a gross lapse of propriety. Furthermore, I had no desire to travel the path again where those sorts of familiarities led. I stared at the pen I held suspended. Perhaps silence would send him on his way.
He chuckled. "You will grow accustomed to our informal ways in due time.” He cocked his head. “I must admit the sight of you satisfies a burning curiosity."
I looked up in alarm.
He smiled as if enjoying a private joke. "I have wanted to pursue your acquaintance since the day we set sail. Poor John Sampson nearly broke a leg in his haste to report how he had allowed you aboard against his better judgment. Pray tell me how you have managed to keep yourself scarce in the wake of all the mayhem you created above stairs?"
I frowned at the strange turn of conversation. "What? Me, sir? Perhaps ye have mistaken me for another."
"Not at all, Mistress Payne. According to my fellow Assistants, you are the one at fault for turning out to be a woman."
"Oh?" I had no idea of what he spoke. Perplexed, I narrowed my gaze upon Assistant Cooper. Sometimes appearances were deceiving. Perhaps inside he was not as sane as his cultured accent and finely crafted garments suggested.
"Ah, Mistress Payne, your thoughts are delightfully transparent. I will explain. The board thought they voted for a man, you see, when they approved Eleanor's hiring of a certain R. Payne into the position of company clerk."
Nay, I did not see how such a mistake could be possible. I'd made no effort to hide my gender during the interview. Consternation tightened my throat.
His eyes glinted with amusement. "Ah, this is priceless on so many levels. The board is in a quandary. We hired a lass by accident, but so far you have failed to give us cause to let you go. We have scrutinized every inch of your reports to no avail." He rapped his knuckles on the table for emphasis. "Alas, the computations are impeccable."
"Oh, dear," I murmured, uncertain if he sympathized with my plight or mocked me. I laid down the pen and clasped my hands in my lap. What a grievous mix up, but surely they did not expect an apology. "Be assured, my lord, I shall never give ye reason to regret your vote in hiring me."
His smile was blinding in a blond demigod sort of way. Unfortunately, I no longer trusted demigods.
"Too late," he said beneath his breath.
"'I was, er, just saying 'tis far too late, at any cost, to send you back from whence you came."
"How comforting," I whispered.
"Priceless," he repeated, shaking his head. The smile was replaced with keen speculation as he took his leave in a swirl of navy silk.
Jo is mega reader of many genres and an award-winning author at Astraea Press who loves to indulge in marathon showings of CSI, NCIS, and Castle. From St. Louis, Missouri, she holds an M.B.A. and has served as a banker, college finance instructor, and high school business teacher. She is a PRO member of Romance Writers of America and From the Heart Romance Writers RWA Chapter. The mother of three children and the wife of a soldier, she serves as a literacy volunteer for elementary school students.