Sunday, August 5, 2012

Salome - Chapter One

Chapter One

Though much of the city still slept, the London Docks were already bustling in the early grey fog that commonly preceded dawn. Ships were being unloaded, vendors were setting up wares, and the air was filled with the sound of carts rumbling over cobblestones, and the curses of their drivers and passersby. Through this hubbub, a caped figure rode astride a fine gray gelding, coming to a stop in front of the stables that served the needs of the many clients and business owners of the various warehouses that lined the street fronting the docks.
A wide-brimmed hat and the high collar of the mantle hid the features of the rider, who gracefully dismounted with a light bounce of the feet. Tossing a coin to the stable boy who rushed forward to fetch the reins, the rider strode away with a graceful gait. Tall black Hessian boots, polished to a high shine, resounded on the wooden planks that served as a walkway beside the busy street. These same steps came to a halt outside a small building whose sign proclaimed it the offices of Kestrel Shipping, and the rider stepped inside.
As the bell mounted over the door rang, John Bowles looked up to greet his visitor. He smiled as he recognized his employer.
‘Good Morning, Sinclair,’ he said with a grin.
With a flourish, the mysterious figure removed the wide-brimmed hat, and a tumble of black curls descended about Sinclair’s shoulders. Had anyone cared to give the rider outside any real scrutiny, they might have noticed a form more slender, feet more delicate, and certainly features more feminine than even the most foppish dandy. However, the woman standing before John Bowles knew that all too often, casual viewers only took in what their eyes perceived, a smallish figure of a man, clad in buff breeches and long coat, not the woman who wore them.
‘Morning, John,’ she said with a grin.
For all that London knew, Kestrel Shipping was owned by the very private figure known only as Hawke Sinclair. In reality, the name was nothing but a convenient moniker to hide the truth, that Sinclair was really a woman whose true name was Salome Mercer. Women of her time were usually relegated to the drawing rooms, but necessity dictated that Salome take on all aspects of the business that had been started by her brother Nathan some years before.
John lifted a package from his desk and held it before him as Salome removed her coat, revealing a loose white shirt and dark waistcoat. Not even the manly attire she wore could hide the luscious curves that made up her body.
‘This arrived for you earlier by courier,’ John said as Salome took the package from him. ‘It is marked E.J. Lindsay. I presume it contains the information you were looking for.’
Salome grinned, and the delicate features of her face were transformed as her red lips curled into a smile. Despite her choice in garb, there was no doubt that Salome Mercer was a beautiful woman. Her long black hair curled about her as it escaped from the loose braid she wore, and her eyes lit up with a calculating gleam. The pale skin of her cheeks glowed from the cold morning air, and John never failed to be amazed at the startling color of her eyes. They were a pale green, nearly colorless, though they could darken to a brilliant peridot when Salome was stirred to emotion.
‘Excellent,’ Salome declared, tucking the package beneath her arm. ‘How are the invoices coming?’
‘The usual shipments of tobacco and hemp from Virginia arrived yesterday. The crew experienced no problems during transport, so I expect the inventory to be complete by this afternoon. There are a couple of new contracts for you to look over, but things are still tight across the Continent. We can continue to charge a premium for shipments to Britain’s allies as long as Napoleon remains in power,’ John replied.
‘Well, that continues to be good for us for the time being,’ Salome replied distantly. She smelled coffee, and poured herself a cup from the pot John had close to hand. Her thoughts were already occupied with her future plans, which all hinged on the contents of the parcel she had yet to open. ‘Carry on, then,’ she said quickly as she stepped inside her office and shut the door behind her.
John shook his head as Salome disappeared from view. The large blonde man had been her constant companion for nearly two years now, since the disappearance of her brother at sea and the upheaval caused by it. He knew what Salome was about, and though he could not wholly approve of her methods, he had to admit that her actions were shrewd. Not many women in her position would take such steps to secure their futures, but Salome liked to be prepared for all possible outcomes. Despite his towering frame and hulking appearance, John had a soft heart, and Salome was like a daughter to him. He would not like to see her hurt in any manner.
Salome tried to steel her nerves as she settled into her deep leather chair. The package before her was substantial, and she had no doubts that the files contained within would be as thorough as she had requested. E.J. Lindsay was the most competent investigator she had ever employed, though she had never met him in person. In Lindsay’s line of work, discretion was a necessity, and Salome knew firsthand that privacy was a premium in many instances.
Taking a deep draught of the hot coffee, Salome considered the chain of events she was about to put into motion. Two years ago, her older brother Nathan had mysteriously disappeared on a routine trip to the Caribbean. His ship had returned with a report that Nathan had gone ashore to complete delivery of goods and secure a return cargo, but he had never returned to his ship. Coincidentally, a British frigate had left port around the same time, and Salome had been convinced that her brother had been impressed by the Royal Navy. She had launched inquiries, but they had come to naught. If Nathan Mercer had indeed been captured by the British and forced aboard one of their warships, no one was admitting to it.
Nathan’s affairs had quickly unraveled, and Salome met John Bowles during that time. Though she was Nathan’s sister, and familiar with the workings of the shipping business he had worked so hard to build, she had been denied the opportunity to purchase Kestrel Shipping when it was put up for auction. Nathan was not married and had left no heir to take over his interests, not even a proxy to allow Salome to inherit in his absence. She was only a woman after all, and with no spouse of her own to speak for her, she had been forced to sit idly by as Nathan’s possessions were auctioned after he was declared officially lost at sea six months after his disappearance.
With John Bowles’ help, Salome created the persona of Hawke Sinclair, using her own personal assets to purchase what was left of Kestrel Shipping, and had been continuing the operation of the business until she could find out what happened to her brother. Thus far, her search had come up empty-handed. The British government would never admit to taking a legitimate American citizen and forcing them into service aboard one of their ships. She had been held off with stories of pirates and unfortunate accidents, and been told to accept the inevitable. For all intents and purposes, Nathan Mercer was dead. Salome refused to believe such nonsense, and continued on.
Salome could have been content, she knew, if only recent developments had forced her into a new and decidedly more difficult dilemma. Nathan and Salome had lost both of their parents by the time she was sixteen. Nathan was of age at the time and took on the care of his young sister, but at the same time wanted to make his own way in the world. The Mercers owned a large plantation near Charlottesville, Virginia, growing tobacco and hemp, and it had been left to both siblings equally. With Salome’s blessing, Nathan had sold his share of the property to his sister and made his way to the sea, where he began Kestrel Shipping. He was a natural and was quickly making a name for himself, up until his disappearance.
After the auction of Kestrel Shipping, Salome took to sea and left the care and operation of the plantation to her overseers. The property would run well in her absence, given the care that her father had taken.
 Never one to believe in the subjugation of another human being, Anthony Mercer had decried the usual operation of large properties, which dictated slave labor. Instead, he went out of his way to use his meager funds in the beginning to buy strong slave laborers, whereupon he gave them the opportunity to purchase their freedom through work. A strong sense of loyalty and trust was built between the Mercer family and their employees, and the former slaves were given a share in the profits of the plantation. There was no way any of them would trade their freedom by running the plantation into the ground through neglect.
However, Salome had been so concerned with her brother’s interests instead of her own, that she had been completely taken by surprise when she reached her majority on her twenty-first birthday last December and was apprised by her father’s attorney of the full conditions of her father’s will. She had raged at the time, uselessly, that she had not been apprised of his terms before now, but there was nothing to do about it.
Anthony Mercer had always hoped Salome would find a love match and marry on her own, allowing her time before his conditions were put into motion, and perhaps she would have, had Nathan not disappeared before then. Salome had been far too preoccupied to worry about such things as finding a husband. Indeed, she cared not if she never did. She was content to live out her life on the plantation, and there was always Nathan, whom she had no doubt would one day settle down, leaving her with plenty of nieces and nephews to dote on.
It was not that she was opposed to the idea of marriage; Salome’s parents had been deeply in love. In fact it was the depth of their commitment to each other that told Salome she would not need to settle for companionship or material comforts to make a match. It was simply that she found it impossible to be attracted to any of the men she met. Fiercely independent and intelligent, Salome could not find it in her to allow any man to be anything but her equal, especially when it came to marriage.
Thus it was that she was so outraged when she was informed that her father’s will demanded that she be wed by her twenty-second birthday, or her inheritance would go entirely to Nathan, who would then be responsible for her. All well and good, but Nathan was gone and without him, she stood to lose everything. The plantation she loved would be auctioned, the funds placed in trust for her care. These developments were what brought her to London now.
Before coming to America, Anthony Mercer had stood to inherit a wealthy estate. Instead, he had fallen in love with a woman deemed unacceptable by his family and been disinherited when he married her. Salome knew her father had sacrificed everything for love, but he had maintained a close relationship with his sister, Alexandra, who had made a good match with a Duke. Once, long ago, Salome remembered her father telling her that his beloved sister had promised to sponsor her in London Society. It was the hope that her Aunt would honor that promise that Salome hoped for now.
With her Aunt’s sponsorship, Salome could be introduced and have a Season, which as everyone knew, was the best possible hope she had to make a match before her birthday. She would not be unprepared, though. Before presenting herself on her Aunt’s doorstep to request that she fulfill her promise, Salome intended to be fully informed of all her possible prospects. Thus it was that last Friday night had found her beside John Bowles outside St. James palace, spying on the aristocracy and making a list of the most eligible bachelors Society had to offer.
Salome had forwarded her list to E.J. Lindsay and given the investigator one week to compile files for each one, so that she could determine her best possible match, even before she met any of the gentlemen in question in person. One could never be too careful in such matters, she reasoned. The more she knew about her possible suitors, the better. Salome thrust aside all thoughts of love and approached the matter of finding a husband with the same acumen she used in all her business affairs. She could only hope to find someone who would be willing to let her have her own interests, and not bother her too much.
Salome took out a sheet of paper and began to list the qualities she was looking for in her mate. Not too old or too young and impressionable. She required someone without a penchant for too much gambling, she would not stand for someone to risk her inheritance over a game of cards. Someone who was hard-working, cared for his interests, and not in debt. Salome chewed thoughtfully on the end of her quill as she tried to consider other requirements of her husband. When she could think of no further reason for delay, she opened the package that would help her decide her future.

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