A More Perfect Union, Book 1
by Betty Bolté
Ebook ISBN: 9781614176541
Print ISBN: 978-1614176558
[ Historical Romance, MF ]
Emily Sullivan is thrown in a loyalist prison for her privateering father’s raids on the British. Frank Thomson, a patriot spy posing as a loyalist, always loved Emily and when he learns of her plight, vows to save her. When everything is at stake, will love be able to survive?
“Frank is due to return any day.” Emily Sullivan suppressed a shiver and quickened her pace. If asked, she would blame the early evening breeze blowing inland across the Charles Town harbor for her reaction. Frank had once claimed to be a patriot but now had switched his loyalties to serve as a loyalist broadside printer in the occupied town. How dare he even show his face? Did he truly believe in the British cause or did he have such loose morals as to pretend for his own profit? Either way, she’d have naught to do with the man. Her long skirts swirled about her hurried steps. “I’m glad you wanted to walk with me, Samantha. Your company calms me. And of course it’s nicer than traversing the distance home from Aunt Lucille’s house with my servants.”
“Together we’ll be safe enough for such a short walk,” Samantha McAlester replied, “though I doubt your father will agree given his insistence that you remain at home.”
“It is my fault we left the sewing circle later than I intended, but I miss St. Michael’s bells chiming the hour. What shall we do without them? The British should pay dearly for stripping our treasured bells from the steeple.”
“Come, let’s get you home and off the streets.” Samantha quickened her pace.
Emily hurried down the sandy road beside her friend, noting the waning sunshine draping shadows across the street. The slap of the waves at the distant convergence of the Cooper and Ashley Rivers beat a syncopated rhythm against the array of ship hulls, large and small, in the protected harbor. Many of the masts bobbing against the darkening sky sported the hated British flag. The losing army had resorted to sanctioned looting of the beautiful homes—those still standing after two years of British occupation as well as fires and bombardments—as booty for the officers and soldiers before they withdrew. She hoped they would leave soon, but nobody knew exactly when the British ships planned to depart. They’d already sent the bells to London along with other pilfered items. In fact, the British officers sought retaliation for the threat posed by the patriots, who had hidden their true allegiance, against the loyalists living in the city. The officers encouraged harassment of the American citizens, which translated into her father, a leading merchant in town, fearing for her safety more than ever. Until the British actually evacuated, uncertainty and fear blanketed the town.
Dragging in a deep breath, unease settled over Emily’s frayed nerves at the thought of Frank’s return. “I cannot believe Father insists I marry him after all that man has done. Surely Americans have matured enough they wouldn’t force a woman to marry. It’s 1782, after all. I’m not a child. Why doesn’t he understand?”
A seagull glided past, its laughing call bringing a smile to her face. Her enjoyment didn’t last long, though. The occupation of the town created fear and disquiet throughout the citizenry. Add in the horror of her sister Elizabeth’s fiancé Jedediah dying, leaving her pregnant and in need of a husband. Then Jedediah’s brother Frank, the man Emily had secretly cared for, married her sister to keep the child from being a bastard. Emily survived the misery of watching Frank marry Elizabeth only to suffer much more when Elizabeth died in childbirth with Frank away at war. Emily had come to terms with the prospect of raising her nephew, but being forced into marriage with Frank, too? How could life turn and twist with such disregard for her future goals and plans?
Frank’s imminent arrival now distressed her as much as the three hundred British ships crowding the harbor. The rumor about town suggested the ships stood poised to carry away the defeated enemy troops along with any loyalists wanting to flee the town. Many slaves would likely take the chance on freedom offered by the British, despite the American protests. The constant motion of the water for once failed to soothe her troubled thoughts.
“Have you told your father how you feel?” Samantha matched Emily’s stride easily despite her slight limp and the basket she carried.
Sharing her feelings with her father had once enjoyed an easy place in Emily’s heart. Now his demands for her to cloister within the theoretic safety of the town house, joined with his desire that she marry to secure her future, made confiding in him difficult. His concern stemmed from her advancing age with few appropriate prospects for marriage due to America’s fight for its independence from an overbearing mother country, which seemed to be winding down. She longed for those carefree days, years before, filled with friendly banter and heartfelt discussions with her father.
Emily wrinkled her nose. “I haven’t spoken with him, not that I think he’ll care. He’s more concerned with my supposed need for a protector while he’s away.” What a pickle. Did he have to choose Frank to serve as both bodyguard and suitor?
The thought created ripples of fear along her spine. Marrying a man, any man, meant losing her individuality, a fate she dreaded. The vows included obeying and honoring him, which translated into having his children. She shivered, recalling her twin sister on her deathbed mere days after delivering her son. Emily held her hand as Elizabeth’s life departed, her fingers falling limp within Emily’s clutching grasp. Just like their mother before her.
So many young women across the country feared pregnancy and being brought to bed for that very reason. Elizabeth, like many of those women, had written out her will when she discovered she carried a child. At least the document detailed her wishes for her son. And her surrogate husband, Frank Thomson. Elizabeth was to wed Jedediah, the betrothal announced and celebrated, before Elizabeth revealed she was with child. The banns had been read twice when his militia duty arose and he’d left to fight. If Jedediah hadn’t been killed, Frank would not have felt obligated to do his duty as Jedediah’s brother to wed Elizabeth and give the unborn child a father and thus avoid bastardy.
Emily used to think of him as her Frank, until he told her his decision to wed Elizabeth. Her heart had hurt for months as she struggled to understand and accept the reality that she could never have him. But once Elizabeth died in similar circumstances as their mother, Emily’s fear of dying as a result of childbirth eclipsed any naive desire to marry.
No, better to pursue her dreams of opening her ladies’ accessories shop. She squared her shoulders, ready to face the astonishment of the ladies in town as well as plan a strategy for the battle when her father voiced his objections.
Lost in thought, Emily slowed involuntarily as Samantha paused in front of the empty bakery, its door shut tight. Next door the printing office boasted the glow of lanterns through the windows, signaling someone working late to prepare the British broadside for the morrow. Emily turned her attention back to the vacant bakery. She loved the little building so full of wonderful memories. Signs posted in the two plate-glass windows flanking the front door vainly tempted passersby with blueberry or cranberry muffins, apple pie, or pumpkin bread. She inhaled expectantly. Tears smarted her eyes when she smelled only sea salt and wood fires.
“I cannot believe they actually hung the poor Widow Murray,” Samantha said. A gust of wind snagged a few strands of ink-black hair, tugging them free from the casually wound bun nestled inside her bonnet. She tucked the strays behind one ear and glanced at Emily.
“It is not surprising, when you consider her penchant for gossip, now is it?” Emily stopped also. The stooped woman had delighted in sharing titillating chitchat while Emily selected her two loaves of bread. Mischievous, she was, cackling over another’s indiscretion. The woman refused to be circumspect, saying more than acceptable once too many times. But to be hung by the British as a spy? The foul Britons had no respect for American ladies.
The darkened shop sat cold and lonely compared to the once-bustling business. A chill skated down Emily’s spine, and she hugged herself. The Widow Murray had survived the death of her husband at the fight for Stono Ferry in June of 1779, and her bakery served as a popular early morning and late afternoon stop for the townspeople, until the British invaded Charles Town in May 1780. Then everything changed.
Sadness mixed with anger settled in the pit of her stomach. She missed her brothers, off fighting with the militia, but at least their efforts yielded the nearing peace. “And to think, she stopped three deadly attacks on our boys just by sharing with my father what she heard.”
Samantha shrugged. “Yes, but it still makes me sad.”
“Her little shop feels so abandoned.” Emily squinted at the store, assessing its size and features. The quaint store sat along a normally busy thoroughfare that promised to provide plenty of potential customers after peace returned. But first, she had to find the right moment to share her intentions, starting with her cousin Amy Abernathy and Samantha. Amy was her strongest ally and thus the perfect person to stand with her. Second, find a way to tell her father. After all, her new resolve to take care of herself unfortunately still required his assistance to secure the shop, given contracts were men’s domain. Convincing her father she meant to conduct business on her own presented a nearly insurmountable challenge, but she would find a way to do so. Then she’d have to share her plans with the ladies in the sewing circle in order to garner their support of her efforts. She already envisioned mannequins within the cool dimness behind the glass panes, displaying embroidered dresses, shoes, slippers, and gloves. She pictured herself waiting on customers, sweeping up scraps of floss and fabric from her sewing, keeping the windows shiny clean.
Peering at the empty building, she sighed. The stone and wood-plank structure invited passersby through its half-glass door. Large glass windows would allow the sunlight to filter inside, illuminating the interior in a way that made Emily smile with pleasure. She wanted to set up shop immediately. Her father would resist allowing her to do such a daring thing, citing society’s expectations of women. Marriage, children, housework. No mention of a proper education nor avenues to personal achievement in the merchant world. Her father’s stature in the community dictated her options, limited such as they were. She wanted more than a clean house and a productive garden from life. Somehow, she must persuade him to see reason.
With a long last look, Emily turned away from the temptation of the store. “We must go. I don’t want my father to catch me here without his required escort, and we’re very late as it is.”
Few other people ventured onto the street as darkness crept closer and the stars began to wink at her from above. A lone wagon lumbered by, pulled by a dapple-gray draft horse, its ribs clearly visible in the evening light. Emily’s heart went out to the beast. Even the horses suffered from want of adequate food, much like the townspeople. The prices of food and wares had increased a thousand percent since the onset of the war. The Continental Congress embargoed staples such as rice, indigo, corn, beef, and pork to ensure the American armies had provisions. If it weren’t for her father ignoring those embargoes and continuing to export rice and indigo to the West Indies and France, they too would suffer financial distress. He also imported goods for sale in town, enabling them to continue to purchase food despite the exorbitant cost.
In years past Charles Town had bustled at this time of day. The town’s women would have been chatting together while strolling to the marketplace, once replete with a variety of foods and wares. The men engaged in heated discussions on their way to McCrady’s tavern for a pint after a day spent at the Exchange conducting business. Wagons and carriages rumbled along to the steady rhythm of horses’ hooves, creating puffs of dust to drift up and settle on the long skirts and pants of those on the street. All under the watchful eyes of the seagulls soaring and screaming overhead.
Danger patrolled the streets in the form of British soldiers searching for anyone who dared be a patriot within the town limits. Those who had not signed the loyalty oath to King George’s dictatorial ways were either run out of town, their property confiscated, or imprisoned on the ships at anchor in the harbor. Indeed, one night in August 1780, several prominent patriots, including Governor John Rutledge’s brother, Edward, and Peter Timothy, the editor of the Gazette, found themselves charged with seditious activities, arrested, and sent to the St. Augustine prison in British East Florida. They were released after a year or so, but instead of being allowed to return to their homes in Charles Town, they were sent to Philadelphia to be with their exiled families.
Samantha gripped the basket’s arched handle with both hands and shrugged. “Your father will chastise us no matter, so what’s the point?”
“At least I can honor his request by being home before night completely falls. He objects to me being on the street, but my skills are needed. The cloth and shirts we’re sewing will make our soldiers’ lives a little more bearable. Perhaps even one of my brothers will receive comfort, wherever they are now.” A seagull swooped onto the street in front of Emily, and she shooed it away with her skirts. Looking down the shadowy lane, she tensed. “Fiddlesticks, I’d hoped to avoid this.”
Two British soldiers, replete in crimson coats boasting dark blue facings and white breeches, ambled up the street, their rifles slung over their shoulders, bayonets sheathed. The two men saluted a third—a loyalist officer, by the hated dark blue coat faced with white and the crossed white straps—as they neared him on the opposite side of the road. To her mind, loyalists were worse than the British regulars because they chose a distant, controlling king over their friends and, in many cases, their own families.
“Quick, while they are busy,” Samantha whispered as she pulled her bonnet closer around her face, though she kept an eye on the men. “Perhaps they won’t notice.”
Emily’s heart sank. She’d gone and done it now. Her father would skin her like a rabbit if she landed in trouble. Again. Try as much as she did, she seemed to invite mischief. She furtively watched the men engage in a brief exchange. Solidly built, they stood as tall as young saplings, their broadcloth uniforms stretched taut over massive chests. One soldier winked at her with a slow, hungry leer as they approached. She lowered her head so the bonnet shaded her face but still allowed her to watch their actions. “I fear it’s too late. Surely, though, they won’t harm us standing on a public street.”
She glanced at the men, the lanterns they carried casting wavering light across their faces, alarm sparking inside her at the hungry amusement on their faces. She grabbed Samantha’s arm and started down the sandy road. Her heart beat a staccato rhythm when the men neared, intercepting the two women on the nearly deserted street. As the soldiers drew to a halt in front of them, a low, menacing chuckle from the taller of the men sent terror snaking down her back.
“Now, now, ladies, don’t be in such a hurry,” the first soldier said, blocking her path.
He reached out to tug loose a string from her tea-colored bonnet, her last decent one. She’d pulled it from her mother’s trunk, forced to use even those last remaining articles of clothing. The filth. Bad enough they were British. Emily recoiled, gagging at the odor of sweat and tobacco. She swatted his hand away. The major—from the insignia she could now see far too closely—approached them. Something in his eyes, glittering beneath his hat, tugged at her memory. She dared not investigate more for fear he’d misinterpret her look as one of interest. She glanced away but kept an ear on the soldiers’ movements.
“They just want to have some fun,” he said, his voice sharp as he stepped closer. “Where is your father, Miss Sullivan? Surely he didn’t allow you to venture out alone?”
“He’s awaiting my return, if you’ll permit me to pass.” Emily made to continue on her way, but the officer raised a hand, stilling her movement.
“Not yet. We merely wish to speak with you, make your acquaintance. After all, there’s no one to stop us, now is there?”
“I will.” Samantha planted her feet and gripped the basket with both hands, glaring at the men.
She would, too. Samantha proved the strongest of her friends, capable and confident. Emily often wished for Samantha’s fortitude. Where had she learned to confront an adversary with such confidence?
The officer chuckled. “It would be fun for you to try, at least. Perhaps then your father will mind his business ventures with more care.”
Samantha’s eyes narrowed at his comment, but she held her ground. “We are late, sirs. Please, let us pass.”
“We’ll not detain you for long. I only want to taste a young lady one more time before I board one of those ships for England,” the first soldier said, leaning closer to Emily and laying a hand on her arm to restrain her. “You’re such a pretty little blonde, too.” He snatched the lace-trimmed bonnet from her head.
She gritted her teeth when he mauled her mother’s delicate bonnet. “That’s mine!” Emily grasped at it, clutching air until finally finding purchase on the hat, and pulled it from his smudged fingers. With shaking hands, she straightened the lace-edged brim as the man chortled at her predicament. She inhaled to calm her roiling stomach. “Gentlemen, please.”
Seething, she inspected her hat. At a minimum, he fouled it by his touch. Bad enough the town ran thick with thousands of enemy soldiers without having to deal with these animals. Her hands trembled, but she steeled herself to face the loathsome men. She relied upon what little decency they may possess to help Emily and her friend out of this precarious situation. “Young ladies, as you say, prize their virtue and thus do not share kisses with strangers. If you’ll step aside, we’ll continue on our way home.”
The second soldier yanked the bonnet from her hands and lifted it to his nose, inhaling deeply. “Love the smell of a fine woman.”
The man rubbed her bonnet on his face, inhaling deeply each time it swiped across his nose. A dark smudge appeared where he’d wiped his grimy face on the lightweight fabric. She swallowed the bile rising in her throat. Suddenly footsteps echoed behind her, but she dared not tear her eyes from her assailants to turn to see who approached. Might it be yet another foul British soldier attacking from the rear? The apprehension pounding in her ears along with her pulse prodded her into action. She refused to believe anyone would take advantage of her, not in her own town on the eve of independence.
If Samantha could defend herself, then so could Emily. Gripping the strings of her purse tightly, she swung it in a large arc at the closest soldier, hitting him on the elbow with a loud crack. Good, the tin of snuff she’d purchased for her father had earned its worth this day.
“Gramercy, woman, watch what you do there.” The soldier rubbed the injured joint, scowling. “I just wanted a little kiss or two. No need to get angry.”
“Let us pass unharmed like gentlemen should or I’ll hit you again.” Breathing hard, she pulled back to deliver another blow when a hand gripped her upper arm and stayed her movement. The heat from the gloved hand seared her where it lay.
“I’ll thank you to leave the ladies alone, gentlemen. And I use that word loosely.” The deep, familiar voice sounded above her head, sparking nearly dead embers of feeling in her core.
She knew that voice. She heard it in her dreams on too many nights and had dreaded hearing it again in person. Its timbre reverberated against her chest, a physical caress as he stepped behind her close enough his heat warmed her back. Relief mixed with despair as a jolt of recognition flowed into her body, tempting her to lean against his powerful frame.
Emily glanced over her shoulder at the tall blond. Light from the open printing shop door pooled onto the ground behind him. Her pulse quickened at the sight of him standing behind her. Her lips parted, remembering his touch, a fleeting touch that had started a feeling like a bubbling creek in her veins, a longing in her heart and inner core she did not fully comprehend.
She snapped her mouth closed, afraid she might reveal too much of the intense physical response she experienced when he touched her. She braced herself against the onslaught of emotions he stirred within her, attempting a frown to show her displeasure. But…
His dove-gray eyes enthralled her. She could lose herself in their tantalizing depths. When he winked at her, her breath hitched. She broke eye contact and turned to face forward.
“I believe you have something of the lady’s.” Frank held out a hand to the soldier, snapping his fingers as he silently demanded the garment. His steady gaze made the soldier shove the bonnet toward Frank before hastily stepping back several yards, well out of range of any physical response. Emily grimaced. Did everyone jump when he snapped his fingers? He may be surprised when she did not.
Frank handed the bonnet to her with a grim expression and a nod. Although still heavenly to look at, with lush, sandy-blond hair, chiseled jaw, and steely gray eyes, now a hardness surrounded those eyes, his firm mouth. He seemed taller, broader, more capable than nine months earlier, before he left town after his swift marriage to Elizabeth.
She folded the offending garment and glared at the circle of men dwarfing her. Why must he show up now? After all this time away from home. Her heart skipped a beat, then restarted wildly with a crazy mix of joy and resentment. Where had he been when her home life fell apart?
Still, at least for right now, he was here, protecting her from these buffoons. And her father’s subsequent anger, should aught go awry. She’d sacrifice her pride this time. She sidled behind him, placing his bulk between her and the aggressors.
The major assessed Frank’s height and size, his look changing from antagonistic to resigned when he noted the insignia on his uniform.
“What right do you have to interfere?” the first soldier asked Frank, seeing the change in the major’s demeanor. “We were here first.”
“Lieutenant Colonel Nisbet Balfour himself requested my presence. And this lady’s father is my father-in-law, who charged me with ensuring the ladies’ safe passage.”
Frank knew the hated colonel? The very man who had personally succeeded, through his intolerant and hateful attitude, in alienating many of the surreptitious patriots in Charles Town. They were forced to sign a fealty oath to King George or be run out of town. On top of that, Frank admitted he had already talked with her father. She had wanted more time before Frank returned. Time to face her father’s unrealistic dreams for her. Time to take the steps necessary to open her own shop and determine how she would proceed with her plans. If she were to be truly independent, then she must insist on being treated as such. Frank’s officious behavior stroked her irritation.
“We’ll see about that,” the soldier said, surging forward and aiming his rifle at Frank.
Emily gasped, gripping Frank’s cloak involuntarily. He set her from him then stepped forward, drawing the man’s attention and the path of his aim away from her. Frank braced his feet as he faced the frustrated soldier. “Be sensible, man.”
Trembles rocked her to the core at the tableau playing out before her. Motion slowed to a crawl as she attempted to make sense of the scene. Her breath caught in her throat as the seriousness of the situation sank into her rattled brain.
The man stalked toward Frank, his finger on the trigger of the weapon. Huge paws hung at the end of the soldier’s muscular arms. Thick fingers curled around the dark wood stock and supported the long metal barrel. Stubble shadowed his jaw and surrounded his yellow smile. The rifle aimed at Frank’s abdomen. “I’ll have what I came for and you cannot stop me.”
At this close range, even if he tried, he couldn’t miss. She fixed her eyes on Frank, saw when his eyes turned to mirrors, focused on settling the challenge. He appeared capable of killing her assailant then and there. Cold fear lodged in her chest. Frank came home, only to be shot? Over a bonnet? No. She wouldn’t allow it. She made to take a step to intervene, stop the madness, but Samantha grabbed her arm with a fierce grip all while shaking her head. Emily tried to ignore her, but her friend held fast.
“I believe the lady has a say in the matter.” Frank whipped a pistol from some hidden place, cocked the hammer with a deadly click, and leveled it at the man. “I’d think again about your intentions, sir.”
Emily tugged on Samantha’s hold. “Frank, no!”
Frank locked eyes with his opponent, his thumb ready to release the lethal ball. His eyes narrowed, intent and deadly.
“Stand down, soldier,” the major cut in. “This has gone far enough. Next thing you’ll be challenging him to a bloody duel over nothing more than a thwarted buss.”
“Put your gun away,” Frank said to the soldier, “or face charges of assaulting an officer.”
The soldier reluctantly cradled his gun, glaring at Frank.
“Are you Captain Thomson, by chance?” the major asked, scrutinizing him.
“Yes, sir,” Frank said slowly. He lowered his pistol, keeping it handy.
“Colonel Balfour mentioned you were to arrive to take over the printing press and the broadside.” The major considered Frank and the lethal weapon, his internal debate evident in his expression. “But your point is well-taken. This is neither the place nor the time.” He turned to address the soldiers. “All right, men, return to your duties.”
“But sir—” The man’s voice held a barely concealed whine.
“You heard him. Move along now.” Frank replaced his pistol, though he did not relax his demeanor. Might they be safe and allowed to continue, or would there be some retaliation? Emily would fight, at least verbally, for Frank if she must. Her actions had incited this predicament, so she felt compelled to help resolve it. Fortunately, the officer quelled the whiner’s eagerness with a severe look before tipping his hat to Emily and Samantha.
“Ladies, my apologies,” the officer said slowly. “You may be on your way.”
“Thank you for your assistance.” Frank studied the officer as the disgruntled soldiers stalked away. Still he stood ready to defend himself if called upon to do so.
“One moment, sir.” Samantha’s eyes flashed as she gripped the basket handles. Fury simmered beneath her words. “What? No reprimand for your men?”
“Ladies.” The officer smirked at her questions, then followed the two soldiers down the street.
Taking a deep breath, Emily faced Frank.
Frank’s dark gray eyes turned stormy, his hands on his hips as he studied her.
“Pray tell what you two are doing on the street alone?”
* * *
The next morning, Emily endured Frank escorting her to the sewing circle, acquiescing to her father’s outraged insistence. He argued with her about the necessity of her attending, and she’d finally convinced him to permit her to go, but only if Frank walked with her to prevent any further attempts on her virtue and welfare. They stopped to pick up Samantha from her home on the way which made the walk bearable.
Emily paused at the edge of the street and scanned the facade of Aunt Lucille’s three-story brick house, shading her eyes from the sun. The lovely home stood in the middle of the block, with its courtyard of flowers and bushes below the upper piazzas. Two of her father’s Negroes, Richard and Solomon, had lugged the necessary equipment and supplies from home to her aunt’s house on Meeting Street, a double dwelling similar to the Sullivan home overlooking the wharfs and harbor on Bay Street. Fortunately the men were among the few who did not take the chance when tempted with freedom as long as they fought for the British. Although liberation from slavery lured many blacks into the battle, rumors abounded that the slaves who did so ended up slaves elsewhere afterward. Thus many blacks stayed with the families they knew rather than trade for a worse situation. Richard and Solomon were like kind uncles to Emily, both having lived with the Sullivans her entire life.
Emily and Samantha, along with a brooding Frank, entered through the street door to the first-floor porch. The young men’s strength had apparently made quick work of the assembly of the loom. Emily greeted her personal slave, Jasmine. She had tasked the young black woman with carrying the spindles of flax thread used to weave the cloth and also in directing Richard and Solomon in their chore. Now the loom stood ready for Emily to take her seat and start the shuttle flying back and forth to weave the linen fabric. The men’s immediate labor completed, they retired to the cooking kitchen to “assist” the women with preparing the midafternoon lunch for the ladies, while Jasmine helped with the sewing. The sound of the black women singing as they worked in the kitchen behind the house complemented the whir and chatter in the parlor.
Emily settled on the small seat of the loom, and placed her feet on the treadles, pressing them in a steady rhythm. She sent the shuttle’s smooth wood sliding easily between the vertical threads, weaving the flax into cloth. With each toss of the shuttle, left, then right, then left, Emily thought of her three brothers and the other men still fighting. Small skirmishes continued to erupt whenever the militia happened upon scavenging British troops confiscating whatever provisions they deemed necessary from the surrounding plantations and homes.
“I imagine Frank’s temper showed after you and Samantha behaved so boldly yesterday.” Amy paused in her passage across the room to stand beside Emily. Cousin Amy’s dark copper tresses cascaded down her back, catching the firelight, while her emerald eyes sparkled with mirth above porcelain cheeks.
Whirring spinning wheels hummed a tune as background to the conversations in the large upstairs parlor of Aunt Lucille’s home. The requisite fire kept the cool October air at bay. Emily passed the shuttle to and fro, glancing over to where Samantha now sat by the cozy fire stitching a sleeve onto a shirt. The room overflowed with women, white and black, free and slaves, working together to provide warm, sturdy clothing to the men fighting to defend their independence from King George III.
Emily paused in the act of throwing the flying shuttle and pumping the treadles to pat her kerchief across her damp brow. She grinned at the memory of Frank’s dark scowl as he hustled them down the street the night before. “A tad, but he soon recovered, I daresay. His displeasure spoiled his handsome face when he realized Samantha and I had walked together through town.” More like outraged, but he had contained his ire with her. “He’s gone to McCrady’s Tavern to meet Father on some business or other.”
“I’m pleased, Cousin, that you arrived safe.” Amy hugged her briefly before stepping back to gauge her condition. “The British and loyalists are desperate enough to seek vengeance on anyone who crosses them.”
Emily could only nod in silent acknowledgment. The chasm of fear that had opened within her when the soldiers accosted them would forever remain her secret. And when Frank had faced certain death, her heart nearly stopped beating. Those few minutes of uncertainty she and Samantha agreed to keep to themselves, given no good could arise from telling anyone about the men’s inappropriate actions. It was bad enough her father had to be told. Frank’s lecture all the way home had done nothing but vex her and spoil the evening.
Amy’s mother, Lucille Abernathy, glided to join them, making a path through the organized chaos inherent with the sewing apparatuses and materials strewn about the large room. Her mud-brown day gown sported a flowered apron with two pockets filled with thread, needles and lace. Her gray-streaked black hair swept up to a bun with a white cap perched on top. The years of war had imprinted worry lines, radiating from the corners of her mouth in contrast to the sparkle of her eyes.
“It is dangerous for two young women to be alone in town, especially now,” Aunt Lucille said. “You should have walked with Richard and Solomon from here to your house.”
“I’m sure Father would agree with you.” Emily surveyed the room, taking a few moments to stifle the annoyance bubbling within her. It all sounded so easy to rely upon some man being with her in order for her to do anything. But it rankled deep inside her soul to be forced to wait for a proper escort even though that was expected. Annoyance simmered within her at the prolonged war with the British, at being treated like a child when she was nearing twenty-five and headed for spinsterhood, and most of all for not knowing exactly when Frank would return so she could have avoided running into him at all. To learn he served as the new printer for the remaining months of the British occupation, and thus working next door to where she planned to rent a shop, made matters even more upsetting. “Next time, mayhap I will let them escort me.”
“Next time Frank shall escort you, now that he’s back in town. After all, Frank is a nice man, honest and fair.” Aunt Lucille slipped her hands into her apron pockets. “And able to look after those he cares about.”
“I suppose.” She refused to think of Frank as more than her sister’s husband—or widower now. He had chosen Elizabeth when a choice needed to be made. All for little Tommy’s sake. Then why did her heart race so at the thought of Frank being nearby again? She mentally shrugged away the question. Likely she experienced indigestion at his unwanted presence. Whether attracted to him—an absurdity—or not, she no longer desired to encourage relations with a man. Her own plans did not include marriage, no matter how handsome or smart the man might be. Not any longer.
Jasmine crossed the room and waited for Emily to acknowledge her. “Your tea is waiting downstairs as requested, miss.”
After thanking Jasmine, Emily beamed at Amy. Time to reveal her plans to her confidantes. “Aunt Lucille kindly allowed me to arrange a private tea for us. I have a surprise I’d like to share with you and Samantha.”
“Now?” Amy scanned the busy room, then pinned her gaze on Emily. “We have much to finish.”
“I cannot wait any longer.” Her determination wavered as she contemplated the enormous task before her, not only in terms of starting a business. The bigger challenge rested in gaining the acceptance by her community when she pushed the boundaries of propriety in such a bold manner. The next step after securing her father’s assistance, of course, would be discussing her plans with her circle of friends, the ladies in this room. They had stood by her throughout Elizabeth’s confinement, childbirth, illness, and then funeral. The patriotic women would also have the ability to smooth over the idea with their husbands and fathers. Before she did that, she needed to know her cousin and friend supported this most difficult decision.
“You’ve always liked a good mystery.” Amy’s eyes lit with curiosity as she followed Emily across the room. Upon Emily’s invitation, Samantha quickly agreed to the clandestine tea party.
They adjourned to the downstairs library at the front of her aunt’s house. The tall, shuttered windows protected the inhabitants both against the dust rising from the sandy street beyond and from prying British eyes. A wood fire crackled and hissed in the fireplace.
Emily poured chamomile tea into flowered cups and set the china pot down before gazing at Amy and Samantha, who waited for her to speak. What to say? She’d longed for the courage to broach this topic for a week, hesitating to reveal her innermost desires even to her closest confidantes for fear of their reaction. Lifting the porcelain cup to her mouth, she sipped, debating how best to share her news. On a sigh, she set the cup and saucer down.
“I’ve decided to open an embroidery shop.” The words tumbled from her mouth. Amy and Samantha stared, mouths dropping open at the announcement. Emily suppressed the nervous laugh that threatened. She twisted the tiny gold mourning ring on her right hand, silently asking Elizabeth for her understanding. She took a deep breath and let it out in a rush. “I do not want to be a wife and mother. Rather, I’ll support myself and live the way I wish.”
Gasps expressed their surprise. Closing her mouth, Amy eased her cup onto the saucer and gazed at Emily before laughing. “You cannot be serious, Em. A spinster? You? You’ve always wanted a large family and a loving husband. You mustn’t tease us this way.”
“I’m not joking. I do not wish to be owned by a man.” Emily clenched her hands until they turned white at the knuckles. Not even by Frank, the man she once loved with all her heart. A quiver of remorse fluttered within her chest as she blinked back gathering tears.
“Owned?” Samantha gazed steadily at her. “Come now, you do not believe such folly, surely. A husband is not a slave driver.”
“Pshaw. I’ve seen how men treat their wives.” Emily dabbed her kerchief at the corner of her eyes. “How fathers give away their daughters with their dowry and little more than a kiss good-bye and good riddance. I’ll not do it, I tell you.”
“I cannot believe what I’m hearing.” Amy shook her head, rising from her seat and pacing past the carved mahogany bookcase filling one long wall. She stopped by a round table with its cut-glass decanters of maroon port and amber sherry and four glasses. Toying with the lace doily, she said, “You cannot believe your father would allow you to forgo marriage and children. You know he won’t support you forever.”
“He won’t have to,” Emily said. “For once, Father must understand my position.”
“But Em, this is simply not done. You know this is impossible.”
“It should not be impossible. Can’t you see? I cannot risk having children.” Emily felt her heart contract in disappointment. She fiddled with the gold band, recalling her childhood dreams of robust sons and lovely, precocious daughters to help her and love her in her dotage. But no more.
“All because of Elizabeth’s death?” Samantha asked softly. She moved to stand near Emily and peered into her eyes. “Is that what you’re afraid of?”
Emily searched Samantha’s eyes, willing her to understand. “First my mother and now my sister perished after birthing children.” A tremor coursed through her. Her dear twin, Elizabeth. How she missed her happy chatter and caring ways. “Samantha, you as a midwife know even better than I do how many women die in childbirth. I dare not risk it.”
Amy paced the lavishly furnished room. Her homespun skirts brushed her ankles as she turned at each corner of the oriental carpet, avoiding the cushioned sofas and side chairs. “But, my dear, it’s simply not permissible for ladies of our station to be shopkeepers. If I know Uncle Joshua, he will be furious once he hears of this ridiculous notion of yours.”
“Why is it ridiculous?” Emily drew herself up to her full height. “Other women have shops in town. The Widow Murray’s bakery was one. Mrs. Dunwoody has that lovely fashion store over on Market. And, and…”
She racked her brain for other examples, but few women desired to be independent. The coverture laws provided for wives to be supported throughout their lives. Unmarried women were merely a burden on the family, and thus encouraged or even required to marry to remove the burden and be a useful member of society. Indeed, most women wanted to be homemakers and care for their families. They only worked in shops when forced to take over their husband’s business upon his death or face starvation. Raised themselves with the expectation of marriage, children, and household chores, many looked on spinsters as neglecting their duty to marry and perpetuate mankind. With a wry smile, Emily realized she used to be one of them. No more. With the death of Elizabeth, her opinion had changed.
She snapped her fingers as more female merchants came to mind. “Mrs. Johnson sells candles and scented sachets over on Broad,” Emily said. “Surely I can open a shop and sell decorated hats and gloves. My embroidery and weaving skills are both respected in town, so I shall make clothes and embellish handkerchiefs, satin shoes, even wedding dresses. I don’t believe there is anything wrong with having a shop, after all. Women should have as much right as men to earn a living.”
“I don’t entirely disagree with you, Emily. However, while women can help in the shops, only widows can inherit the shop from their husbands, not maidens. We cannot even own property until we’re widows.” Samantha laid a hand on Emily’s rigid arm. “Relax, my dear. We’re not criticizing.”
“No? It feels that way.” Withdrawing from Samantha’s touch, she strode to the fireplace. Thoughts cascaded through her mind, tumbling freely with rampant emotions into an intricate knot that settled in the pit of her stomach. Amy and Samantha wanted the best for her and spoke the truth about the difficult path ahead. The challenges and sacrifices she faced made her more determined to succeed.
Amy crossed the room and sank gracefully onto the settee facing the fireplace. She arranged her skirts around her. The thump of Amy’s hand on the needlepoint cushion invited Emily to join her. “Em, please, come sit and let us discuss this rationally.”
Emily did not move. A pop and hiss from the fire echoed through the silence. She could not move. She needed them to understand, not oppose her choice. If they couldn’t accept and support her decision, she despaired of ever convincing the ladies sewing circle and even less her father. Her heart beat in her ears as she took two slow breaths.
Amy patted the brocade cushion once more. “Em, please. Sit here with me.”
Something rigid in her spine relented. With a sigh, Emily went to sit beside her. She settled her skirts, though never as beautifully and effortlessly as Amy, who long ago perfected the art of entertaining and welcoming others no matter where she went. Emily could not hope to achieve the ease with which Amy spent her life. Being sociable came naturally to Amy. She attracted suitors as easily as a net collected fish, and Emily worried her cousin’s particular style of fishing would simply lead to more troubles.
“Talk to me.” Amy laid a hand on top of Emily’s clenched ones. “What is truly happening?”
Emily stared into the fire for a moment before addressing Amy’s question. Her hands trembled in her lap, and she pressed them together. “If I marry, I will be expected to have children, lots of them, no less, to support our young country. I understand what’s expected but I would jeopardize my very life. It’s not what I wish for my future.”
“And?” Amy asked gently. “There’s more to this story, I believe.”
Her heart sank. Emily regretted confiding in her cousin her feelings for and initial intensely physical reaction to Frank. His touch on her fingers, coupled with the light kiss on the back of one lucky hand, had created a sizzling sensation throughout her body, leaving her hungry and longing when he’d stepped away. Then the ensuing devastation when he proposed marriage to Elizabeth. Recovering from the fracture in her heart proved a long, painful process, but she had managed. That episode would stay in the past, where it belonged. She squared her shoulders and searched Amy’s eyes silently, trying to convey her feelings without having to put voice to them. “I don’t know what you mean.”
Amy’s hand tightened on hers, and her lips curved slightly. Emily closed her eyes and sighed, a tear crawling down her cheek. She brushed it away.
No tears. No more.
“I understand,” Amy said slowly. “I, too, do not wish to marry. I’m not afraid of having children, mind. But to give up what I want to do to be subservient to a man who has all the rights and privileges of this new country while I sit by and have nothing to my name?” Winding the long auburn curl hanging beside her jaw around her index finger, Amy stared thoughtfully into the fire. “I see your point, Cousin. Perhaps it is best to be a spinster by choice and suffer the townspeople’s insults than to be forced to remain at home, subject to the vagaries of men.”
“What did you say?” Emily peered at Amy. Her cousin, who loved to flirt and dance, would willingly be a spinster? “Does this have anything to do with Benjamin Hanson’s sudden disappearance a few years ago?”
Amy shook her head, but her action lacked conviction to Emily’s mind. Amy had sulked for months after the man’s departure to serve in the Continental Army. Emily suspected Amy’s heart underwent the same splitting in two her own had endured over Frank, yet she refused to admit such even to herself.
“What will Cousin Evelyn say?” Emily redirected the conversation away from the touchy subject.
“I believe my sister will understand and perhaps even applaud my choice. Her own marriage has not been, shall we say, what she expected.” Amy cast a sideways glance at Emily. “Indeed, the abuse she suffers informs my desire as much as… Gramercy, it makes no difference now. I shall join you in your vow.”
“Amy, my dear, surely you jest,” Samantha said. “You’ll break the heart of every bachelor in town.”
“That is none of my affair, Samantha,” Amy said, then chuckled. “After all, flirtation and marriage are very different activities.”
Emily hugged her, the inner coil of tension relaxing as she grasped the fact she may not have to walk this path alone. “We need a nicer way to refer to ourselves than spinster, though, don’t you think?”
“Definitely. But what?” Amy asked.
Emily tapped a finger against her chin, letting several possibilities run through her mind and discarding them as quickly. “A single man is called a bachelor, which is considered honorable.” She wanted a positive word to refer to herself but could not think of any terms equivalent to spinster that didn’t also carry a negative connotation. “William Shakespeare was known for creating new words; why not follow his lead?”
“He made up words?” Samantha set her tea down. “I was not aware.”
“I’m amazed, my friend, that we found something you didn’t know.” Amy laughed. “Emily would. She’s read everything he ever wrote.”
“Bachelor girl?” Emily asked.
“That’s a possibility,” Amy said slowly. “Though I’m not sure about the girl part. We’re a bit beyond girlhood, after all.”
“True. How about bachelor-ette then?” Emily suggested. “The ‘-ette’ addition makes it feminine.”
Amy shook her head. “No, it sounds too funny. Perhaps we should avoid mentioning our desire to remain unwed and then we avoid the worry altogether.”
Samantha glided to sit on a side chair, her shimmery green dress pooled around her, reflecting the flicker of flames in the fireplace. She leaned back in the chair, her right hand resting on her leg. “Am I correct in that you both wish to remain unwed? To forgo the pleasures of having a husband?”
Samantha’s reference to the physical relations between husbands and wives in this setting surprised Emily for several reasons. She had not known her friend possessed such intimate knowledge of sexual relations. Indeed, having only become friends with Samantha the year before, surely there was much to discover about her past. Emily found herself practically holding her breath, waiting to hear what Amy prepared to say.
“Pleasures?” Amy leaned forward, one eyebrow lifted in question. “I cannot think of any pleasures associated with being married. From what little I’ve heard, the event is short and no fun. At least not for the woman.”
“It’s not always weighted in the man’s favor,” Samantha said simply. “But are you both sure of this vow of remaining unmarried?”
“Without any doubt.” Emily considered her friend for a long moment, realizing Samantha had adroitly changed the subject. Sadness shaded her friend’s eyes, dimming their sparkle like clouds on a starry night.
“Yes, we shall be true unto ourselves,” Amy added with a theatrical flourish of her hand, “and follow our heart’s desires, rather than submit to the whimsical will of a man. Are you with us?”
Samantha contemplated the fire, dancing with red, orange, and blue licks of flame. Lost in thought, she lightly massaged the outside of her thigh. Shouts of laughter came through the window. A dog barked in response. Still, Samantha methodically caressed her leg with her fingers. Emily made a mental note to ask Samantha what had happened while she was visiting her grandmother in Savannah to cause the apparent ache in the limb. But that conversation could wait for another day. This was a momentous occasion in her life, and she wanted to savor it.
Samantha blinked and then regarded them. “I honestly never considered not marrying. The idea has its benefits, however.”
Agitation mingled with hope forced Emily to her feet. She paced the room. When her father desired something, he didn’t back down. He’d never give up until he had coerced her into the one act she longed to avoid. That was the problem. He wanted her to marry, and soon, for her protection, he said. She wouldn’t put it past him to find her a husband despite her wishes. His demand coupled with her sister’s recent death solidified the idea percolating in the back of her mind. The vacant shop wouldn’t be vacant for long, no matter the obstacles placed in her way.
“So you are with us, Samantha?” Amy asked.
“Yes, but we must keep it between us, to avoid open scorn whenever possible.” Samantha grinned. “After all, we’ve reached the upper end of marriageable age. We may as well.”
Emily crossed to the center of the room, her hands outstretched. The first steps of a journey often proved the hardest. “Come, then, let us take a vow together to keep this choice our secret.”
Amy and Samantha rose and clasped hands with Emily, forming a triangle of friendship.
“How binding is this vow?” Samantha asked. At the startled response from Amy and Emily, she added, “I mean, should one or the other of us change our minds, is that allowed as well?”
The image of Frank’s blond good looks and gray eyes floated before Emily. No matter how handsome and fine Frank or any man might be, the vow must, for her own peace of mind, be made. An inner voice cried out in anguish when she pushed the handsome face aside, locking it away in her heart. However, she did not want to force the restriction, or the pain, on anyone else. With a deep breath, Emily said, “As long as it is not coerced upon us, but is of our own choosing, I see no need for this to be forever binding.”
“Then so be it,” Samantha said. “I choose to remain unwed.”
Amy cocked her head and smiled at Samantha. Squeezing her hand, she said, “But you have not stated your reason. What prompts you to this decision?”
A dour smile flickered across Samantha’s lips. “Let us say, I have loved and lost and will not endure such pain again.”
“Indeed?” Amy quirked an eyebrow at Samantha, then glanced at Emily.
Samantha bobbed her head once as a tiny smile formed on her lips. The woman contained many secrets, secrets Emily hoped to one day learn more about so she better understood her friend. For now, Emily’s relief that her confidantes stood with her swept aside her earlier uncertainty.
Emily broke away from the triangle and poured three glasses of sweet sherry. “Then we shall celebrate our agreement with a toast.” Handing the glasses around, she raised hers.
“What shall we toast to?” Samantha asked.
“To life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all in America.” Emily flashed a smile at her comrades.
“And a more perfect union for women,” Amy added, her eyes sober.
Emily tapped her glass against the others, happy yet fearing the consequences of their vow as the ring of crystal quivered into silence.