The Adventurous Heart

Holland Rae

 

Chapter 1

Durham, England

27 February 1787

LADY Georgina Evelyn Wyndham sat at her desk in the dimly lit study and blinked her sleepy eyes. Light was fading from the single candelabra before her, and the fire had long since died in its hold. Despite the lateness of the evening, however, and the pulsing soreness at the base of her neck, she set herself back to the task of deciphering the rows and columns in the large, leather-bound ledger propped on the desk before her.

It didn’t matter how many times Georgina traced the tip of her quill over the numbers. The final result remained unchanged. It sat in front of her eyes, large and imposing, and utterly impossible to ignore. Finally, she let herself lean back into the wooden frame of the chair, drop the quill upon the desk, and press her eyes closed. It simply wasn’t going to be enough. No matter how she added or carried or scrimped, the numbers refused to stretch any which way to cover the month’s expenses.

Her eyes flew open at the word. They weren’t expenses. Oh, surely there were some expenditures to be factored and added, such was the truth of any large estate, but the issue was not derived from any excess in the kitchens or over-hiring of staff. Without realizing it, Georgina ground her rows of teeth into each other until her jaw cramped. Were she simply running a household, simply taking responsibility for the ins and outs of the Hilldale Estate, she would rest easily each night, tucked away in her bed—not awake past the midnight bells, alone in her study. As it stood—

The far right column of the ledger all but glowed like angry embers before her, numbers popping with random, almost petulant action. A score to be settle, a tab to be paid, a debt to be owed. As a child, Georgina had known of her father’s affection for the more costly of life’s vices. It had been the just cause for her mother’s threats to return to her own parents’ estate in the south of England, and to take Georgina with her.

In those days, it had been her and Mama against the world. Her father’s regular drinking, dicing and betting had been not but a footnote in the daily life of the young lady. With her mother’s attention on her only daughter, Georgina had never believed her life lacking.

But then her sister had been born, her mother had been lost, and her father had given up the reins upon control of all of his earthly temptations. The modicum of respect he’d given to her Mama in regard to game play and liquor was not to be had for her, and as Georgina had come of age, and far too quickly, her responsibilities in running the estate had broadened. Now, she grappled not only with the everyday dealings of a household, but the regular question of whether they would make their debts, whether there would be enough food, if there would ever truly be a dowry in place for Iris, just fourteen to the month, and the light of Georgina’s troubled days.

Of course, there was also the business to be taken into account. It was her father’s business, created in one of many moments of desperation. More a consulting firm than anything truly solid, it served a solicitor’s office for the local gentry. When clearheaded, her father had been a master of numbers. It was a trait that Georgina, when desperately searching for the next month’s kitchen money, had realized she too was adept at. With all of the permission of a man deep into drink, she had reopened the firm, only on the strictest of occasions, to bring in the money needed to secure Iris’ future marriage. Georgina would worry regarding her own marriage, if there ever were one to be, much further along. In truth, on the months they could only scrape, Georgina had dipped into the funds that her Mama had put aside for her to wed. Once a healthy sum, it was beginning to dwindle to the bottom of the pot. She knew that the business would need to carry them some months, in order to avoid letting go any more of the few remaining staff.

There was a soft knock on the door, and Georgina glanced hurriedly at the clock—half past one in the morning. If she didn’t make for her bedchamber soon, dawn would break before she ever got the chance.

“Come in,” she called, distantly alarmed at just how tired her voice sounded, even to her own ears. She was barely three and twenty. Had the weight of her father’s follies given her such cause to age so rapidly?

She was pulled from the thought when the door inched open, and a spry-looking William McCowen walked inside, carrying a small tray of tea. He had been the only hire in her father’s early days of running the business himself. The man’s perseverance and help had been one of the sole reasons that Georgina had not yet lost her head, in the midst of all of the madness. He was young, though still likely a few years older than herself, and remained fresh-faced as the day her father had brought him back from London, where he had devoted himself to the study of law. Though from a genteel upbringing, the McCowen family remained some rungs below her own in the social stricture, and he had deemed it a solid strategy to remain with the family as long as was possible.

That had included aiding Georgina in her madcap decisions to try and run a business. It had been much in part to his status as a man that she had even managed at all.

“It’s late,” he said, placing the tray on the desk before her. “It’s best you find your way to bed soon.” William was a handsome man, if overly youthful. His face remained entirely free of hair, and when he wore one, his wig was simple and unadorned. He had taken on the task of keeping the estate functioning with vigor, even if that had meant working below the woman of the house. If issue was to be found with their arrangement, William had never voiced it, and for that Georgina had always been grateful.

“William,” she began, looking down to her ledger and back at him. He nodded and she continued. “Have you any idea what funds remain in my name?” They never spoke the word aloud. Dowry. But the idea was well and surely known. Once, William had tried to convince her of some other means, but eventually they had both faced the hardening truth. There had been no other means. He, considered an apprentice, had not taken a salary in many months, simply content with board and food. It remained yet another reason she was forever in his debt.

At her question, however, he visibly winced, even in the dimming light from the remaining candle.

“Surely this month isn’t quite so bad?” There was a hopeful note in the young voice, but even in that there remained a level of restrained optimism. He knew, as well as she, that when the question was asked, circumstances were only the most dire.

“William.” She looked him square in the eyes, even as she sat in the chair, her whole body protesting the state of being awake so late into the night. “I need to tell you something quite honestly.” He nodded, reminding her again of just how young he really was, and just how old she truly felt for it. “I believe this month might be quite the worst one yet.” The statement struck the still room like a stone skipping across a flat pond surface. Hope was dwindling, not unlike the light from their single candle. Without a change, without some concession from her father, who still fantasized that their storerooms were full and their coffers overflowing, then soon it would all go dark.

* * * *

Andrea DuPonte Morgan sat at the edge of his pallet. As the ship swayed slightly below his feet—formally a comforting sensation, now merely an irritating one—he recalled, not for the first time, the conversation over dinner. With each replaying of the evening’s events, he could feel his future, his plans, his whole life, slipping from under the leather boots he wore, now firmly planted to the floor. He had been arrogant, so utterly sure that Governor Pompton would sponsor his next expedition, that the question of a contingency strategy had never once entered his mind.

“I have to be honest, my friend,” Howard Pompton said, tearing off a piece of bread and soaking it in his soup, “I really haven’t any money.” He threw the bread into his open mouth and continued, “It’s all tied up. I’ve two ships down near the islands, and a whole fleet prepared to sail next month for the Indies.” Even in the memory, Andrea could feel his heart sink into the weighty coldness of his stomach. Never once had Pompton refused to fund him. Their expeditions, several over the course of some twelve years, had never failed to bring home successful reimbursement and treasure.

And now, with what could have been the largest treasure of his wild and rambunctious career as an esteemed explorer, Andrea was facing the worst circumstances he could possibly face. With no visible means of funding the expedition, an enormous sum, when it came to manning ships, providing resources, and arming his men, he could all but wave goodbye to a historical find from the shore where he stood, watching a rival explorer act quickly upon some newfound advantage.

And what an advantage it was. A whisper, the barest hint, a sordid shadow rumbling through the hall of a bar tavern, but he was a seasoned explorer, well trained and wise from his years at sea. There was always risk, but deep in his heart, Andrea could hardly help but believe those tall tales—the treasure of the great Captain Coronado had surfaced.

Lost to two hundred years of sea battle, piracy, and war, the treasure had been claimed stolen, buried, burned, and drowned. According to some, it had been swallowed by the ancient wild boars of the Indies Isles. To hear from others, the ghost of Francisco Coronado himself protected the treasure, buried somewhere along the hundreds of miles of coast of the Spanish Main. And while Andrea was a sailor, and had oft relied upon his superstitions in the tales of seafaring old, he had hardly counted any of those tall tales as significant value. The treasure of Coronado was the dream of any explorer, grand or otherwise. It allowed the vice of imagination, when one considered the possibility of riches beyond all comprehension or fantasy.

Riches he could find honest use for at the moment, Andrea thought sourly to himself. It did little good to wallow in the self-pitying stupor of frustration and strong whiskey. In all the years he had lived, and though he was hardly eight and twenty to the day, he had lived many a lifetime, not a single moment of those years had benefited from wallowing.

A thought struck him sideways, like the hard edge of a pistol in close combat. There had always been a contingency plan. There would always be one, should the need ever arise for him to act with such desperation and madness that his whole world would come crumbling down to its very foundations.

Andrea stared down into his glass and shook his head, feeling the light spring of curls against his temple. He must be going mad, to even consider such a prospect, to even entertain the possibility, not only of returning, but returning to that.

The liquid in the glass was hardly conducive for reflection, but despite that Andrea could see his own face clear as day in the turn of amber liquid. As an explorer, half mad with the sea and elements and drink, he had found some semblance of freedom among men who all seemed to be looking for their own escapes, their own new stories to tell. Life was different, on open seas and in unexplored territories, when one carried the mark of the ocean, and walked behind powerful arms.

He hadn’t been home in a long time, though it was truly laughable to even consider that rock his home. Surely the sway of sea-sprayed shipboards was more a home to him than the Gallway Estate had ever been. And though he’d been just a boy of six and ten when he’d boarded the Atlantia and sailed for distant shores, there was little doubt to be had about his role in the world. It was a role he had fiercely denied, finding his respect through skill with a sword or pistol, and not through some ill-fated land ownership that had never truly been his to call home.

For a moment he considered a face he had long forgotten. His mother’s smooth skin, dark as the underside of a plum, ghosted before him in the blinking light of the chamber. She had deep brown eyes, twinkling in their merriment, and he could almost hear the bell-like laughter that accompanied that sparkle. It was like a candle in a hold, flickering against a soft breeze. If he hadn’t inherited the full darkness of her skin, he’d inherited her eyes, rich brown with flecks of yellow and green. Andrea had been told he had the expression of an ally cat and the temperament of a lion, with those eyes.

That personality would hardly prove the sticking point, if he did decide to trek for the ancient estate. While his mother had been truly dark-skinned, Andrea had been the product of her deep African roots, and the pale, pasty colors of a British aristocrat, guilty of spending his days indoors to the detriment of his own complexion. As it turned out, Andrea had spent his life toeing a certain line, vying for some balance where he was able to be both African and English.

He stood from the bed, sloshed his drink around in his glass, and made for the small armoire stationed near the door, like a solider on some sacred duty. He unclasped the metal latch from its hold, and groped into the dresser’s darkness, finally reaching its prize and withdrawing with a small collection of bound notes and missives.

Settling the drink atop the dresser, he shuffled quickly through the sheets of foolscap, finding, to his horror, that real nerves seemed to pool in the inner most base of his stomach. Surely, he didn’t actually wish to return home. Surely, he remembered every reasoning behind his departure all of those years previous. Surely, there was some other way.

What other way? Pompton had made his decisions clear, and while Andrea had enjoyed the lavish attentions of other wealthy patrons in the past, none had boasted the extravagant wealth of the governor. And none, he paused for a moment to consider, would be fool enough to go after the treasure of a ghosted pirate vessel, since sunk, burned, or bewitched.

At that thought, his large fingers skimmed the top of an ancient letter, discolored by the years it had remained hidden in the depths of the closet and chambers.

To the honorable Andrea DuPonte Morgan, he read in a scribe’s hand, thankfully still legible despite its age. It was dated 1781, six years prior.

We regret to inform you of the passing of your father, the former Lord Edward Franklin Morgan, of the Gallway Estate in the north of England. In his death, he bequeaths you the Estate, and the entirety of its holdings, and an annual sum of 10,000 pounds per year, to be paid to the Estate through business and other previous arrangements.

Andrea stopped reading. He already knew the information contained in the remainder of the formal missive, ways of contacting his father’s solicitor, an old friend of the family no doubt, and what other logistics needed be achieved to be granted access to Gallway Estate and the funds to be found with it.

Lord Edward Franklin Morgan had never been his father. Surely, the marriage between his mother, a servant in the Gallway House prior to any amorous intent on the part of the master, and said master, had been legally binding. For all intents and purposes, he was, indeed, the legal owner of the grand estate, with its annual sums and business dealings and such other luxuries.

The Lord had never been harsh with him, not that much chance had been given for relations, niceties or otherwise. From the day Andrea turned just five years of age, he had been packed up and hustled off for schooling and tutoring, even further out in the countryside than Gallway. There was little question as to why the young son of a lord was to be hidden far from prying eyes. One glance at his dark, curling hair and the rich skin that could not be hidden, made all too clear who the boy’s mother had been. And even if they were truly in love, there was little use in publicizing an affair that would surely ruin the man.

Andrea stared at the letter, even as his fingers dug deep into the worn foolscap. And this, this prison, was a life he planned to intentionally return to? As the idea swirled in rapid waves around his taxed mind, he groped desperately for an alternate option, but none were to be found.

He looked at the paper. His father had been too ashamed to allow the boy to remain at home while he was alive, but in his death he had granted him the whole of the land and estate and title, a great heroic attempt to salvage a ruined relationship and salve a guilty conscious.

But Andrea’s worries were no longer on the dead and gone. Instead, he glanced at the small window that gave some moonlight in splinters and cracks to a tired, worn cabin. If he decided to turn his ship and sail for home, in a desperate and madcap venture to fund the greatest expedition of his career, he would have to set himself to worry about the living, and who was going to be there when he returned home.