by Kyle


Water flowed about the deck of His Majesty's Frigate Indefatigable, in rolling waves to match those of the still restless sea. The violent storm of the previous day and night had abated to just torrents of drenching, windless rain. Captain Sir Edward Pellew found his footing near the entry port, and waited with dire anticipation. He was still reeling from the emotional announcement from his First Lieutenant, Mister Bracegirdle, minutes earlier: "Hornblower's escaped!"

The words rang in Pellew's ears. In his heart, he knew that if anyone could find his way back to *Indefatigable,* it would be his resourceful Acting-Lieutenant Horatio Hornblower. His mind, however, had not prepared him for this moment, knowing the circumstances of his capture. Admiralty dispatches had confirmed some time ago that Hornblower and his prize-crew of the captured French sloop La Reve had been taken prisoner when, in a dense fog off the coast of Spain, they had sailed headlong into the middle of the Spanish fleet and were forced to surrender. Pellew could not hide the smile that crept upon his lips at the sight of the young officer, as Hornblower led his men aboard.

The unexpected pleasure of their return was cause enough for celebration, but Pellew stood aghast when he realized that, at Mr. Hornblower's side was Mr. Midshipman Kennedy, lost at sea during the Papillon action some three years earlier! How the devil - ? Never mind the two Spanish sailors who stood upon his deck as well! Pellew's mind raced as he tried to consider the circumstances that could have led to this most unusual gathering. He knew, however, that all would soon be made clear, in Mr. Hornblower's report in his cabin, just as soon as the rescued men were attended to ñ dry clothes, spirits to warm them, and any injuries treated. He could be patient, as this promised to be one interesting tale!

As the last of those rescued stepped onto the deck, the tale Pellew was anticipating took a quite unexpected twist. He thought his eyes must surely deceive him, for standing before him, looking every bit as bedraggled and drowned as the others, was a familiar female form!

"Your Grace!" he exclaimed.

Her Grace, the Duchess of Wharfedale, had never felt less like a Duchess in all her life. Soaking wet, and cold beyond belief, she thought she would never stop shivering. The trying events of the past weeks, the storm, the rescue, and the night spent in Mr. Hornblower's open boat praying for warmth and rescue, had taken their toll on her. As she was helped onto the deck of the ship - his ship ñ she dreaded facing its Captain. She knew there would be no escaping the commanding presence of Sir Edward. *Of all the ships in His Majesty's Navy that could have rescued me, why did it have to be his? He has crept into my thoughts since Gibraltar ñ and now - *

Despite her miserable appearance and her weakened state, the Duchess held her head high and matched the direct, if astonished, appraisal from the eyes of the one man who truly perplexed her. She couldn't define him, or place him into a convenient little box of predictable behavior. He was strong and sure, and wore the heavy mantle of command as effortlessly as he wore that striking Captain's uniform. Both fit him perfectly. But, it was not as a Captain that she had dwelled on him, over these long months, but as a man ñ a man who did not appear to be thoroughly charmed by her carefully cultivated feminine wiles ñ how unusual.

She felt her strength and customary resolve ebb. Her mind blurred, and no matter how hard she willed herself to remain standing in his presence - don't let him see this weakness in me - she soon found herself slipping away from Captain Pellew's stunned gaze.

He reached for her as she collapsed, and, with Mr. Bracegirdle's assistance, managed to keep her from hitting the deck in a decidedly grace-less fashion. Always in command of any situation confronting him, Captain Pellew swept up the Duchess in his strong arms to carry her himself to warmth and shelter. Even as he did this, he hastily shouted orders for those rescued to get below and out of their wet clothes. The implications of this were not lost on him, in light of her presence on his ship. And in my arms! Oh God! He found himself stammering through the orders, despite his practiced efforts to always remain unaffected. Damn! How she flusters me!

Mr. Bracegirdle offered his cabin for the Duchess' immediate needs. As Sir Edward set
Her Grace gently down on the cot, he was thankful that he could trust the new ship's surgeon, Dr. Hilliard, to discreetly tend to her. Had that old sot, Hepplewhite, remained with them, the ship would have been rife with rumor and innuendo as quickly as he could have deserted the surgery to seek out those with an ear for such tasteless gossip. Pellew was glad to be rid of the old drunk, whose desertion of service had not brought a moment's grief aboard his ship. Hilliard had been quite a find, one that Sir Edward attributed to the good fortune of a happenstance meeting during a visit to his beloved Rosecliff Cottage on his last leave. Hilliard had stopped by at Rosecliff to pay a call on his aunt and uncle, the couple employed by Pellew, but more like family really, as caretakers of the house and properties. It was not a difficult task to appeal to the young doctor's sense of adventure on the high seas and entice him away from a position with a merchant concern in Dover. Despite his lack of experience on the sea, he was a more than able surgeon, with a genuine interest in the men and an appreciation for the difficult circumstance that life aboard a ship of war presented. Hilliard had also become a friend, on whose judgement and honesty Edward had come to depend.

Pellew asked his servant, Cooper, to see about rounding up some dry clothing for Mr. Kennedy and their Spanish "guests," and he made a point to tell him to find some things in the Captain's own seachest to outfit "Her Grace." *She might not be a Duchess, but she is still a lady - well, a woman, at least, in uncomfortable surroundings, and a bit of special consideration on my part would not go amiss.*

Mr. Hornblower's report was requested as soon as he felt ready to present himself. The immediate crisis now past, Pellew made his way to his cabin. Sir Edward closed the door behind him, and, finally he allowed the weight of command to momentarily slip from his broad and capable shoulders. Hornblower was safely back aboard!

He breathed a sigh of relief as he crossed the well-appointed cabin, his sanctuary ñ his port in any storm, to pour himself a glass of wine. And Mr. Kennedy - a miracle for him to have found his way home, for sure. The poor lad must be overcome with concern about his future with us, after such a long time away. I will speak with him just as soon as he is able, and assure him that he remains a valuable member of this crew.

Pellew savored each swallow of the ruby liquid, closing his eyes and willing the apprehension he felt in his gut to drain from him. The most recent dispatches from the Admiralty had delivered good news for Mr. Hornblower - indeed it would be good news for them all, but they also contained information that Sir Edward had not wished to know. And now, owing to nothing more than coincidence, not only must he know it, he must deal with it firsthand. *Damn that woman! The outrageousness that she displayed in Gibraltar may have been an act, but this new embarrassment will prove to be just as trying. Everything about this woman tries my patience! Will it not let up? She has caused me many a sleepless night since Gibraltar, and now - on my ship!* Pellew finished off the wine in a tense gulp, and poured himself another. He hated unpredictability and the feeling of helplessness it spawned. He preferred to know just when and from what direction any storm would hit him. The gale that was the Duchess knew nothing of forecasting, and had blown in squarely in his path.

* * * * * * * *

The next hour brought to Sir Edward a welcome return to the patterned normalcy of the ship's business. There were new issues to address what with the reappearance of Hornblower, his men, and Mr. Kennedy, not to mention their two Spanish "guests." But these were Captain's matters, unusual, perhaps, but still within the realm of his training and experience, and they were dealt with summarily.

With no further pressing business to keep his mind occupied, Sir Edward soon felt a familiar unease returning. He crossed his cabin to the large stern windows, which now showed the weather lifting and offered a promise of fair wind and kinder seas. He turned and gazed at the chart spread on his large table. He had already plotted the course home, and discussed with Sailing Master Bowles the need to return to Portsmouth, as ordered, as expeditiously as possible. Now with fair weather returning, the trip should proceed smoothly, at least on the sea. *The sooner we make Portsmouth, the better. I wish to be responsible for this . . . this matter, no longer than absolutely necessary!* Pellew walked over to the small writing desk against the cabin wall. He absently picked up the dispatches most recently arrived. The knock on his cabin door halted his thoughts about what they contained.

"Come!" he bid.

True to form, Mr. Hornblower wasted little time before reporting to his Captain. He had changed into a dry uniform but had denied himself a much-needed rest, as evidenced by his still-damp hair and unhealthy-looking pallor. Ever the capable officer, however, he stood before his Captain and First Lieutenant ramrod straight, eyes clear, and as expected, cast neutrally at a point beyond the Captain's left shoulder. He succinctly detailed the circumstances of their capture, of encountering Mr. Kennedy in dire straits at El Ferrol, the failed escape attempt, the rescue of the Spanish sailors at the Devil's Teeth, and the death of Midshipman Hunter. Observing the young officer, Pellew could not help but feel that the stiff formality of his posture and delivery simply masked the turmoil inside the man ñ the boy. While Hornblower spoke little of his personal trials, and, of course, denied any undue valor in the events, Pellew knew he had proven himself to be an able and inspiring leader. He knew also that Hornblower would forever hold himself solely responsible for the unfortunate encounter with the Spanish fleet, and for the loss of Mr. Hunter. *Heavens! The young man still blames himself for the sorry circumstances that led to Mr. Kennedy's descent into hell.*

Mr. Hornblower was noticeably less precise about the Duchess' presence and participation in these events, but he made a point to speak of the kindness and comfort she gave to Mr. Kennedy, and her doomed attempts to get safely home to England. He wanted to be certain that the Captain knew of her efforts on behalf of him and his men, as well as the fate of the dispatches that the Captain had entrusted to him before setting sail that long-ago morning on La R've. The Duchess was responsible for keeping those dispatches out of enemy hands - at great personal cost to her, Hornblower thought. Regardless of her deception, she has proven herself to be beyond trustworthy, and loyal to King and Country.

Another knock. "Come!"

As the Duchess was ushered into his cabin, Sir Edward felt a momentary annoyance at the distraction. Nonetheless, he crossed the room to greet her as a gentleman would. She assured the Captain that she was quite comfortable now and that Dr. Hilliard and Cooper had seen to her needs with the utmost care and discretion. Pellew could not help but spend a brief moment to take in the sight of her. There was no grandiose air about her, as before, but she still carried herself with a simple elegance that could not be denied, despite the ill-fitting men's clothing she wore. Her hair draped in soft auburn curls on her shoulders, devoid of the myriad of pins and ribbons that would usually adorn a woman's locks. Her skin, while still pale, was beginning to show a blush of color again, that would no doubt deepen to a rosy glow after a few days of restorative sea air. Her eyes, he noted, as if for the first time, were the color of a Caribbean bay reflecting a cloudless sapphire sky. He noticed that she wore a shirt of his, and a pair of his old britches that had been laced and tucked in an attempt to provide a more appropriate fit. This hastily borrowed clothing, while hardly flattering, failed to entirely disguise her shapely form.

When she spoke, there was just a hint of the broad, unmelodious tones he recalled from their encounter in Gibraltar. Still pretending, eh, Your Grace? But her voice, indeed her whole manner, had softened. He now knew that the outrageous "Duchess" persona was a deception, and shamefully admitted to himself some small satisfaction at seeing her humbled a bit by the turn of recent events. But he was troubled by another feeling that crept upon him like an early-morning mist rolling in off the horizon. She's attractive - beautiful, even - and utterly captivating. He forced that thought from his mind with an almost visible shake of his head. He glanced over at his writing desk, at the dispatches that had revealed her to him. He had steeled himself for the tempest that he was sure lay ahead, and he would simply not permit such thoughts of her as a woman to cloud his judgement.

* * * * * * * *

Sir Edward stood rigidly at his customary place on the quarterdeck, hands firmly clasped behind his back, watching, almost in disbelief, as preparations were made to return Mr. Hornblower and crew to imprisonment. "I must go back," Hornblower had simply and certainly announced - no doubt or discussion. He had given his parole, and somewhat impulsively, that of his men, to Don Massaredo, the Governor of the Fort at El Ferrol, when convincing him that they should attempt to rescue survivors of the Spanish vessel that had foundered on the treacherous reef offshore of the Fort. *Leave it to Hornblower to be so damn honorable that I now have to willingly deliver him to his jailer's doorstep!*

Pellew had made sure that the men in Hornblower's command, and, indeed, Mr. Kennedy, understood that they need not feel bound by Hornblower's word, and that their standing, in the Captain's eyes, or with the crew, would not change if they chose to remain on the ship. Remarkably, not one had backed down ñ they would return with him and again entrust themselves to his leadership under the most difficult of circumstances. He had watched as young Hornblower's face registered the pride of their earned respect. It matched Pellew's own. Sir Edward contemplated the irony of the news he had given Mr. Hornblower earlier, in his cabin. His promotion to Lieutenant had been confirmed. He had earned his commission due to "exemplary gallantry," and now it was that same gallantry that would cost His Majesty's Navy the services of one of it's finest young officers and an able crew of seamen, quite probably, for the remainder of the war. Duty above all else, eh?

The Duchess - Katharine - Kitty - felt Captain Pellew's steady gaze on her, as she said her quiet good-byes to the men who had come to mean quite a lot to her. She so respected their decision to return with Horatio, honor-bound, to imprisonment, but wondered in her heart if it wasn't a foolhardy thing to do. The concept of duty and honor was not unknown to Katharine ñ she more than embraced those ideals ñ but the reality of these lads willingly returning to miserable captivity clutched at her heart. She only prayed that Don Massaredo, honorable gentleman that he himself was, would respect the exemplary actions of these men and allow them an extra measure of dignity and comfort. Katharine spoke quietly to each of the men. Their courage had saved lives, her own included, just a day before, and she was determined to let each one of them bask in her sincere thanks. A gentle touch, a soft smile, a personal word or two about the man's life and that it mattered to someone ñ to her. She recalled her conversations with Horatio on the cliffs by El Ferrol. These men were valued, and if she could leave them with some small wisp of that as a remembrance - to soften their thoughts once back behind bars and give a measure of hope - it was the least she could do.

Katharine now found herself looking into the fair blue eyes of young Mr. Kennedy. This is the most difficult goodbye. How my heart aches for you, gentle soul. His journey back to this ship had brought him such despair, such desolation, and here he was, returning to hell - doing his duty.

"My dear Mr. Kennedy," she began, taking his hand in hers. "have no fear. You are
stronger than you give yourself credit for, and you have come farther than any man here."

Katharine spoke in a hushed voice, with no hint of the broad Yorkshire affectation that was part and parcel of "The Duchess." There was no need for pretense with Mr. Kennedy.

"Despite what is in your mind, Archie," she continued, casting a purposeful glance at
Horatio, "he needs you as much as you believe you need him. Take care of him, will you?"

"Aye, 'Your Grace'," he replied, returning her smile with one of his own that he knew hinted at the shared secret between them.

He was touched by the gentleness of her tone, but moved to the core of his being by the heartfelt message of her words.

"Your Grace - " Archie paused, searching for just the right words, and not finding them. "How can I say - I mean - what words can express - ?"

Archie knew that his recovery, indeed, his restoration, was due in large part, to the ministerings of the intriguing woman standing before him, and he had to idea how to tell her what that meant to him. She had stayed by his side, along with Horatio, through those lost days at the fort, and willed him to live again. Horatio's perseverance had restored his strength, bringing his mind and body back to his duty. Katharine's presence had restored his soul. When he was at his weakest, she never left his side, holding his hand, gently cooing sweet words of assurance and hope. She would recite the gentle words of sonnets, poems, and soliloquies, and Archie found himself brought back to a time and place in his memory where he had felt happy and uplifted. Those words, and the lilting, polished voice with which she spoke them - Archie had heard both before. The woman who sat at his bedside, soothing him, was Katharine Cobham, a bright light on the stages of London. "The Duchess" was merely another role in her repertoire.

Archie never spoke of it to her, although he revealed her to Horatio. Horatio had later explained to Archie about her utmost desire to return home to England at all costs, and the need for her ruse in order to accomplish that, but none of that mattered to Archie. Hers was a most welcome and comforting presence, despite the reasons that brought her to his bedside.

"And, Mr. Kennedy," Katharine spoke even more gently, "the next time you are in London, I would very much like it if you would call on me at the theatre. We will have much to discuss." Pray God, let us have that opportunity.

The smile that had played on Archie's lips since she first took his hands broadened, and his eyes fairly danced with the rosy possibilities of a future evening in London. Katharine allowed her heart to soar at the hint of hope in this glorious boy's face. He will be all right. She reached up and, ever so gently, laid her hand on his smooth cheek, feeling it start to flush under her touch. She left a kiss as soft as a rose petal on his other cheek. Archie's breath caught in his chest, at a tenderness that he had never dared hope for. I will be all right, he thought.

"Godspeed, dear Mr. Kennedy."

As Archie slipped from view, Katharine turned her affectionate gaze to Horatio. He stood before her as an Officer ñ proud, straight and tall, hands clasped behind his back, but in a natural and relaxed posture that signaled the newly-found comfort he felt with his rank and station. How different he was, she thought, from the awkward boy-captain she had teased so mercilessly at Sir Hew's dinner at Gibraltar. The difficult challenges of leadership that had been heaped upon him in these past few months had matured him. He now had, at least with her, a charming confidence in himself.

Katharine reached a gentle hand up and brushed an ever-wayward curl back from his forehead. A familiar gesture, to be sure, but one that no longer brought an embarrassed flush to Horatio's cheeks. They enjoyed a comfortable understanding now, a trust, borne of their shared hardships and long conversations at the prison fort.. There was hardly a need for words between them, replaced instead by a look that spoke volumes of heartfelt consideration.

Katharine prayed that her eyes did not betray her true thoughts, for it simply would not do to compromise Horatio's resolute valor by allowing him to see a hint of the anxious despair that gripped her heart. She gave him her most luminous smile, the one that enchanted audiences and gentlemen alike from Drury Lane to Florence and, hopefully, she mused, back again. She would send him off with hopeful assurances and promises of future adventures.

Yet for all her worries for him, the only thought that he gave voice to was for her well-being.

"What will happen, ma'am, when you return to England? Surely you cannot continue this charade there - "

"Oh, don't waste a care on me, *Mr. Haitch*," Katharine interrupted, using the Duchess' own term of familiarity for him. "I have a long voyage ahead, and much time to consider my obligations." Katharine longed to assure him that her return would be quite welcomed by the Admiralty, and there would be no need for secrecy or worry. It is best he does not know the entire story, she reminded herself.

"I shall miss our conversations, though, Horatio," recalling their long walks along the sun-drenched cliffs by the sea, where they talked of matters of social importance, and of personal remembrances.

"Well, ma'am," Horatio replied with a mischievous grin, "you shall have Captain Pellew to engage in such matters. You must charm him with your wit and opinions." He tried to imagine what Captain Pellew's impression of her would be if he were to know that she was not a woman of title, but a "mere" actress playing a role. What amused him at that moment was the thought of his stoic Captain being bombarded by the firmly held and not-so-delicately spoken opinions possessed by this woman.

*As if I could charm an ounce of warmth and sincerity out of that man! He is beyond my reach.* Katharine recalled the Duchess' shameless attempts at flirtation with the good Captain that night at Gibraltar. It had only served to distance him further from her charms.

"I believe the Captain will be far too busy sailing his ship to pay any heed to me, Katharine replied with resignation, and relief. "And I shall use my time to contemplate the consequences of my return."

A moment of awkward silence passed between them, as they knew what must follow. Horatio took Katharine's hand in his and brought it to his lips with a courtly bow. "Until we meet again, dear lady," he breathed, sounding ever so much as a gentleman by custom. He brushed a sweet kiss that brought a rosy warmth to Katharine's cheeks. What a darling boy. Pray God, keep him well and bring him home.

Further words were lost on Katharine's lips, and she simply watched him take his leave, her eyes lingering on him with devoted affection.

Only after he was over the side and in the open boat below that would return him to Spain, did Katharine realize the weight of the gaze upon her from above on the quarterdeck.

* * * * * *

Pellew looked away from the scene below, and, clenching his jaw, raised his eyes toward the rigging above. The day had become grayer and more overcast, mirroring his own mood. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply of the heavy sea air that always calmed his thoughts. He had watched the Duchess' farewells with a curiosity he should not have possessed.

*How long has it been since I have felt so human a touch, heard a gentle word? How long since I have reached out to someone with all the emotion in my heart?*

He felt a familiar pang that gnawed at him like a physical ache. There were times when he longed to forego, however briefly, the encumbrance of command, and deal with his men with a fatherly embrace or clap on the shoulder. Such familiarity would not bode well, however, for the smooth efficiency required of a ship at war, and the morale of the men, who needed to see command in the firm embodiment of their Captain.

His own good-byes were staunch and proper, a Captain's words and orders to his men ñ exactly what was expected of him. Not that he wasn't compassionate, indeed he was loved and admired by all his men for just that quality and the fairness with which he dispensed discipline. But it was one thing for a Captain to feel compassion in his heart, inwardly allowing it to guide his actions, and quite another to wave it about like the ensign, for all to see. Later this evening, when he sat alone in his cabin to write the inevitable letters, he would allow fatherly thoughts to color his words that would tell each man's family of unflagging courage, honor and devotion to duty. . . and the unfortunate circumstances which required demonstration of those virtues.

He opened his eyes, and with a slight curl of his upper lip, gave a quick, almost distasteful, little sniff, that signaled the dismissal of one course of thought and gave readiness to the next task at hand. Taking his hands from the railing before him, and firmly clasping them behind his back, he assumed his familiar unapproachable posture. He looked down once again at the Duchess and met her eyes, which seemed to be studying him, assessing his thoughts in this difficult time. With a slight and respectful nod of his head, he bade her to ascend to join him on the quarterdeck to better view the departing boat.

The ship's cannon roared a salute of utmost respect, and a few final cheers of good luck were heard from the crew. On the quarterdeck, the mood was still and somber with pride, the officers taking their cue from their Captain, whose resolute sense of duty kept his chin high, his back straight, and his eyes focused on the men whom, he prayed, would return to His Majesty's service. Even Katharine held her emotions in check, giving a stiff wave to the men and not allowing a single tear to cross her lashes. With a final touch of his hat in salute, Captain Pellew allowed himself just a moment of reverie before ordering that the ship return to the orderly business necessary to make sail and begin their journey home to England.

"Get us underway, Mr. Bowles," Pellew ordered with resignation.

"Aye, aye, sir," Bowles replied, glad to be back to the familiar and comfortable routine of sailing the great frigate.

"Mr. Bracegirdle, I will be in my cabin. I wish not to be disturbed except in the event of an emergency." Pellew needed time to compose his thoughts, and the correspondence he could not avoid. As he turned to take his leave, his eyes met Katharine's and he spoke uncomfortably to her.

"Your Grace." He chose his words carefully. "Forgive me for not extending to you the usual courtesies of the Captain's company this evening. I have much to attend to. I will ask Cooper to see to your evening meal and whatever else you may need." *A clear head and the freshness of a new day will make what I have to do easier in the morning.*

"Of course, Captain, I understand." Katharine breathed a quiet sigh of relief. "I am quite weary and wish to turn in presently."

She would welcome the solitude and wanted nothing more than a cup of hot tea and a warm bunk to finish chasing off the unrelenting chill she had felt since the shipwreck and her rescue. Conversation would prove too difficult at the moment, and she needed time to reflect on the events that brought her here. She also knew that the morrow would bring a multitude of questions from Sir Edward, and she would need to carefully consider the responses she would offer him. *How much had Horatio told him in his report?*

The Captain nodded his understanding, and gestured for Katharine to precede him off the deck. Quite unusual, thought the officers remaining there, with amusement. The Captain's usual departure left no room for courtesy, just military protocol. It does muddle things up a bit having a woman on board, thought Bowles, with amusement.

Before retiring to their respective cabins, The Captain and the Duchess stole a quick glance at each other. They each knew that their thoughts of correspondence and of warm rest and reflection would be interrupted by more personal thoughts. Sleep would not come easily. It had been like that often since Gibraltar, and being in forced close proximity on this ship would only serve to make a good night's sleep harder to come by.

This was the first time they had been alone together, away from the eyes of proper dinner guests, or the bustling crew, and the moment ached with an almost nervous tension. At that moment, now that the excitement of the rescue and the sad business of Hornblower's departure had been put behind them, the prospect of settling into a routine with each other over the next weeks together on the ship, and all that may come, weighed heavily on both of their minds. Customary courtesies would dictate much of their interaction, as a Captain was, of course, expected to extend such to a guest on his ship, and out of the same courtesy, a guest was expected to accept them. Neither Katharine nor Sir Edward were certain that they would ably accept these traditional roles, however.

She is not merely a guest on my ship, he reminded himself. Those dispatches made that quite clear.

I am weary of the Duchess, she thought. I must always be on my guard with this man. Oh, to be simply Katharine again.

"May I have Cooper bring you some tea, madam . . . to warm you?" Pellew asked, clearing his throat a bit after the words came close to catching there, unsaid.

"Why, yes, Captain, that would be most kind. I do seem to be troubled by this persistent chill," Katharine replied, remembering to use the Duchess' intonation.

"Until the morning, then, Your Grace."

"Until then, Sir Edward."

Katharine closed the door behind her and leaned heavily against it, listening to the Captain's footsteps quiet as they made their way up the passageway and stairs to his quarters. She would welcome the steaming tea, but not the interruption. She sat on the edge of the narrow bunk and finally allowed tears of exhaustion and despair to flow down her cheeks.

Captain Pellew entered his cabin and was glad to finally have the privacy that was so precious aboard ship, but came more easily to a Captain, at least. Before he could close the door, Cooper was stepping in, to inquire after the Captain's needs. Cooper needed not to make his presence known. Pellew knew he was there and for what purpose.

"Tea, Cooper!" he ordered, a bit more harshly than he intended.

Cooper was nonplussed, having been quite used to this tone of voice when the Captain was under strain, and knowing that it was the weighted burden of command that brought out the severe tone, and not disregard for his manservant.

"And Cooper," he continued, more patiently, "bring some tea to the Duchess, as well, if you please, and see to whatever else she may need."

"At once, Sir," Cooper responded as he backed out the door, closing it quietly. Sir Edward was grateful for that. His head had begun to pound with a throbbing ache that he knew would worsen before it subsided. He hated what was happening around him . . . losing Hornblower and his men, having a woman ñ *no, it was worse than that - an agent of the Crown, for God's sake* ñ on board. His well-ordered shipboard world was becoming anything but orderly. He longed to encounter a French convoy or even the Spanish fleet ñ any kind of enemy to engage! Then his duty and his actions would be clear. He would only be the fierce Captain Pellew, the warrior - his decisions based on years of command experience, his actions dictated by tried and true tactical methods.

Pellew removed his heavy frock coat and loosened the neckerchief that threatened to exacerbate the already intensifying pain in his head. He sat heavily in the chair at his desk, closing his eyes to the fading light of the afternoon and rubbing his temples, trying to ease his tension. He would take a brief respite, then after his tea, would begin the unhappy, but quite necessary task of composing the letters to the families of the men who had just departed. That would occupy his mind for much of the evening, and there would be the regular watch reports to receive, further putting his mind to practical use. It was when the ship was quiet for the night, deep into the middle watches, and when sleep was evading him, that his mind ñ *and probably my heart as well, damnit* ñ would drift to the Duchess. What a complication!

"Until tomorrow, indeed, Miss Cobham," he murmured.

Free Web Hosting