A Star to Steer Her By

Philippa Grey-Gerou

 

Chapter One

Nicholas Randolph stood on the upper balcony of the house he and his sister had taken while they were in Philadelphia, looking out over the landscape of the town. To the north and west he could see the spires of Christ Church and the State House, while to the east, the forest of masts in the harbor bobbed and swayed with the swells of the river. The setting sun turned all the brickwork crimson and orange, glinting off window glass and casting long shadows through the narrow streets. He could hear the gentle slap of water against boat hulls and piers mingling with the soft clop of horses jingling their way from New Market back toward their stables in Southwark. It was a melancholy chorus that suited his mood tonight.

It had been a good trip, despite their having arrived for the worst heat of summer. Poor Catharine had wilted like a flower until they found that much of the populace escaped north in the summer to the cooler, fresher air along the river in Germantown and beyond. So they had followed, he to begin establishing the trade contacts Father had sent him for and Catharine to explore society as her mother wished. They had returned to the city in September with the others, settling into comfortable daily life.

“Nicholas?” Catharine’s voice came through the open French doors, drawing his attention away from the picturesque sunset.

“I’m out here.”

Rather than wait for him to come to her, she joined him on the balcony. He smiled at the sight of her, dressed in her best lawn for the evening, her hair carefully curled and pinned atop her head like a proper lady. At seventeen, she was already a beautiful woman, with their father’s dark hair and her mother’s wide, lustrous eyes. The time here in America had been good for her, allowing her to flower outside of the hothouse of their home in London. Ten years her senior, Nicholas had always doted on her almost as much as if she were his daughter rather than his sister, so the last six months of watching her develop from a gangly, coltish girl into a graceful woman had been as rewarding for him as it was for her. But now their time here was over.

She leaned her hands on the railing, looking out over the darkening town. “It’s so beautiful,” she said wistfully. “Everything’s so clean and open and fresh here. It’s like a brand new world.”

He smiled. “I think I have heard it described that way once or twice,” he couldn’t resist teasing her.

She flushed but held her ground. “Mock me if you will, but you know it’s true. The people here are able to make choices we can’t even imagine at home. They’re so free here.”

She was right. The ruling class back in England insisted that the former colonies had behaved like recalcitrant children, but he understood the crushing pressures of monarchy and history and society that had driven the revolt. He felt them constantly in his own life. Given the proper set of circumstances, he didn’t know that he wouldn’t do the same.

He coasted his hand over her hair. “Are you not looking forward to going back home tomorrow, pet?”

She hesitated before answering. “I shall be glad to see Mama,” she said finally. “But I can’t be in entirely good spirits when I know what else awaits me.”

“You mustn’t worry on it so,” he teased her. “I hear marriage is a blessed institution, and I’m certain you will find a handsome young man of means to sweep you off your feet.”

“The only thing that’s certain is that he will be wealthy,” she contradicted him in all seriousness. “And I shall have no say in the choosing. I’m much too valuable for Father to allow that.”

He couldn’t argue with her. Money was power, and to Edward Randolph power was everything. He had married Caroline Cabot when Nicholas was seven years old, his own excellent mother in her grave three years from scarlet fever. Caroline brought with her a fortune almost equal to Edward’s own, but, unbeknownst to him, it was entailed and codified in such a way as to be subject to Caroline’s control only, her first husband sympathetic to her wish to always remain independent. Caroline had done the same after the birth of her daughter, so that on her death the major portion would go to Catharine for use at her own discretion. Father had been furious, but presumably there was some sort of actual affection between the two, because he hadn’t set Caroline aside in favor of a more lucrative match.

So all that remained for Edward were his children, and the matches they could make that would improve his fortune. Nicholas’s own had been settled on, to neither party’s satisfaction, before he had departed for America. Judging from Caroline’s letters, Father was closing in on an acceptable partner for Catharine as well. Caroline wasn’t happy about it, but as a woman, she had little say in her children’s lives once they left the nursery.

Nicholas put his arm around Catharine, hugging her comfortingly. “You mustn’t worry on it. It crinkles your forehead.” She laughed and relaxed as he had intended. “If tonight is to be our last taste of freedom, let us enjoy it. Tomorrow we sail for England, I to marry Constance Adams and settle into a life of mercantile misery, and you to marry whatever ogre Father chooses for you and spit out ten children of various annoying habits whom I shall have to employ despite my better judgment.”

“Unless they’re all girls,” she corrected him with a giggle.

“Unless they are all girls,” he confirmed. “Which I would highly recommend, if only to see Father’s apoplexy at having to dower them all. But tonight,” he spun her in a giggling swirl, “tonight we are still Nicholas and Catharine Randolph, the talk of Philadelphia society. You shall charm all the colonial boys and earn the envy of all the young ladies, while I stand back and bask in your glory.”

She laughed, but there was something sad in her eyes. “You could have some glory of your own, you know. You’re a very attractive fellow. For a brother.”

“No, my dear, that’s not for me. My path is set, my choices gone. Nothing can change that now. My time is much better spent dancing attendance on you.”

She rested her hand on his arm. “I hate to see you so resigned.”

“You learn to accept what you cannot change.” But he knew his voice sounded bitter. He shook it off. “Come on now, we mustn’t keep the finest families in Philadelphia waiting.”


 

 

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