An American Encounter
by Skihee

 

Ch 23 Disguises and Dilemmas

 

She held the cheap gold clad pinchbeck jewelry to her chest to stop the jingling, hastening down the lane. She was late, and the speed of step sent the multitudinous reams of skirting to twist between her legs.

"Blast!"

She released the chains to lift her skirts to prevent entanglement and the jangling started.

"Oh!"

She lifted the skirts to press against the loose gathered white muslin blouse to hold the several necklaces, causing the bracelets to slip down to her elbow. Her enlarging breasts ceased their uncomfortable motion. This would do.

Confound Edrington for finding her! Confound him for making her late. She looked over her shoulder, clutching her costume, her hair loose and flowing, picking out a short cut through the rock strewn underbrush. Over the rise and she would rejoin the road. The bright moon was a blessing.

This should not be the mad dash it is. It was all planned, ... timed.... ordered. But the best laid plans are want to go awry when it comes to persistent British Army officers. Why had rescuing that one become such a trial?

At least Uncle Daniel was out of the way on a trip to Palestine for DIE. He was expecting her to be better and willing to return home by the time he returned. Well...she would think of something by then, even if it involved telling the truth.

Were those hoof beats? Who could be at this end of the peninsula at this time of night? Her feet slipped down the shale, propelling her more rapidly into the road. In a shadow of whinnying hooves, she released all the fabric and metal to raise forearms for protection. She was unharmed when the horse landed. She scurried to the side of the path jangling and swishing, trying to gather the skirts. The rise of the mound was too steep. She was committed with no where else to run. She heard the pounding hooves and felt the grasp of her arm, lifting up and over.

"Got you! You skulker! Have you been a-thieving this night, you gypsy? What do you mean lurking about the homes of decent people?"

"Put me down! What right have you to kidnap me?" She kicked her legs, being pinned to the panting great beast by a forceful arm across her back. "Let me go!" She twisted to see her captor and gasped. Could she try speaking again with a Spanish accent?

"Pamela? Mrs. Dandridge?"

She stopped kicking and sighed. No. Too late. "What the bloody hell are you doing, Major?"

"I... I.." He was speechless. This bangled gypsy was Pamela? After the initial shock of realization, he felt a surge of anger in his breast. "What are you doing in this...this get up?"

"I'm going to a costume party," she answered sarcastically. "Now, let me down!"

"A costume party? At this hour?" He adjusted the reins, resting his forearm across her back and laying his other hand upon her backside.

"Major... Remove your appendage from my derriere and release me!" She demanded, giving a few kicks for good measure.

The horse snorted and stamped, raising its knees for a bounce. Edrington pulled back on the reins gently and patted her neck. "Whoa, girl! Temper! Temper! This mare is near spirited as you, my lady. The right touch will calm her." His hand returned to its resting place and he waited.

Feeling the press, she decided another approach might be in order. "Please. Let me down."

"It is against my better judgment. I think I should take you in hand. But as you asked so politely, I will oblige." Holding her elbow, he let her slip to the ground."

She sighed with exasperation, trying to examine her clothing in the moonlight, brushing dust and horse hair from her blouse. "Thank you," she said in disgust. "And Goodnight, sir." The words were barely past her lips when she was lifted once more. This time sitting upright and in his arms. "Major!" She turned to his face, but they were so close, she turned forward as quickly. "Please! Please! I am in a hurry!" she pleaded.

"And where are you hurrying, Mrs. Dandridge?"

She tried to push out of his arms and off the horse. The mare reared and snorted. Edrington tightened his arms, holding her close against his body.

"She doesn't like you doing that and neither do I, though the result is quite advantageous." He felt the protest coming and added quickly, "I can do one of two things. I can take you home, or I can escort you to your destination. Those are the only options. I will not permit you to travel alone this time of night. No gentleman would." He pulled back on the reins to stop the quick stepping horse. "Now. In what direction am I to go?"

No time for this hesitation. "Oh! That way!" She pointed straight ahead.

He gave a touch to the horse's sides and a bit of rein, leaning in as he did so and finding his nose and mouth nestled in Pamela's hair. The mare walked forward with a snort.

Pamela fidgeted at the slowness. "Major, I could make better time on foot!" She turned her head and his lips brushed her cheek. "Please let me go!" She rested her hand on his shoulder, a jingle of bracelets, seeing eyes well, despite the night. "I will be late!" she pleaded softly. "Please, Ma... Please, Alexander?"

"Tell me where you wish to go and I will speed you there as on angel wings." One move and ...a kiss was possible.

She turned forward. "Down to the beach! Make haste! I beg you!"

He pulled her back against his torso, gave a quick kick to the mare's ribs, and they leaped to a gallop. She shrieked and grabbed onto his forearm.

"Get your hair out of my eyes!"

"Oh!" She pulled it away behind her back. He leaned forward. Cheek to cheek, the wind streamed her hair back over his shoulder. "Oh, Alexander!" She covered her eyes.

"Your arm is blocking my vision!"

"Oh!" She held on to his other arm and squeezed her eyes shut, but only for a moment. The surge, the wind, his strength around her, she opened her eyes and exulted in the speeding steed and his abilities to guide. The hooves beat a quick and steady beat almost matching the pounding of her heart. Over the shale road, they galloped. The outcroppings and brush a black blur in the bright night.

Nearing the glowing sand of the beach, they could see the small rush of moonlit surf in the narrowing distance. The lighthouse loomed and dark figures stopped on the embrasure to peer into the night. Edrington slowed the mare to a trot, to a quick step, to a walk.

"Halt! Who goes there?" The shadowed figures brought muskets to bear. A man descended the stairs to level ground.

"Major Edrington! Ninety-fifth foot!" He halted the horse and gave the man a salute. "I am taking my lady for a midnight ride, Sergeant!"

Pamela tossed her head, causing the long wind blown tresses to shield her features. She did not know if she knew the soldier, but in this situation, anonymity was the prudent path.

The soldier could hear in the tone the rider was high bred. "What's the word, sir?"

"I haven't the password. I am convalescing at hospital, a patient of Dr. Blakeney."

"You be ridin' that horse like the devil were after ye, sir! Can't say the doctor has ever prescribed midnight rides."

"Nor does he have such a medicine as I."

The soldier grinned lustily at the gypsy woman. "Aye, ye've got a tonic there many a man would like to taste, sir, if ye don't mind my sayin'."

Edrington squeezed her waist with one arm and stroked her cheek. "I see you are a man after my own heart, Sergeant."

Pamela leaned her head back and began to nuzzle Edrington's neck. "We must go!" she whispered.

He sucked the air, feeling the tingling range through his body, and closed his eyes for a fraction.

"It seems ye've got her primed, Major," he chuckled. "If'n I didn't just come on watch, I'd be askin' if there were more where she come from, sir. Off ye go, then." He waved the musket men at ease. "Be careful o' these lanes in the dark, Major. I'd hate to see that fine specimen o' horseflesh have to be put down."

"Indeed. Will do, Sergeant." He reined the mare over and walked to the incline leading down to the beach. "You are making me dizzy, Pamela. Be careful I do not follow the little scenario we have led him to believe."

She faced the sea, tensing her muscles against his as the horse navigated the steep downward path. On the flat of the beach, she reached behind and put a hand on his cheek. Turning, she kissed the other one.

"Thank you, Alexander. This will do. Let me down here."

He reined in the mare and she pawed the soft sand. His grip around Pamela remained and his features softened. He locked his eyes on hers.

"Alexander...I must go. Let me go," she said softly.

He looked from eye to eye.

"I should not have done that." She touched his neck. He leaned against the fingertips, but she lowered the hand to his chest. "It was part of the charade." It was an excuse and his grip relaxed around her waist. She slipped off, jingling in her jewelry. "Good-bye, Alexander." He did not speak; she was still in a press for time. Taking long strides, she headed out across the sinking sand, easing into gravity and the slowness of an earthbound creature. Looking behind, he followed.

"Good-bye, Alexander!" she called in a whisper. Another twenty feet and she looked over her shoulder. The mare snorted at the glance, stopping and pawing the sand. "Go home!"

He walked the mare beside her.

"I cannot. What will the guard think if I return so quickly and without you?"

She sighed. "Then, stay here, but do not follow me. Good-bye." She walked on, but...
"Alexander! Please! You must not follow me!"

He was not looking at her but at something in the distance. It was the boat! Her sail lines tugging and slapping the mast. She walked quickly towards it.

He dismounted, ran and grabbed her arm. "What do you think you are doing? Not another ..."

"No! No! Go! Go away!"

"No, Pamela! Whatever it is, you are not going!"

"Who are you to order me?" She pulled out of his grasp and walked.

"I am an officer in his majesty's army. This is a British outpost and you are a foreigner...possibly a spy!" He gripped her arm.

"Oh!" she said angrily. "If I am a spy, then I am a spy FOR England, you impossible man!" She pulled away again, and she knew he let her go. The muscles she felt in his arms were strong enough to keep her, if he desired.

With two long strides he walked beside her.

"What are you doing?"

"I am going with you."

She stopped. "No, you are not!"

"Either I go, or YOU, do not!" The mare came up behind him and snorted on his neck. "Stop that!" he whispered to the horse. He took the reins and tied them to rest on her neck, then gave her a gentle pat on the rump to move on. "I had the perfect opportunity tonight. It is you that I should have done that with," he muttered, spotting the disappearing form. Adjusting to the long stride his height easily afforded, he was soon beside.

"They will not let you go." She looked back at the horse meandering down the beach. "You had best get your mount, or you'll be walking."

"Why are you dressed this way? Is this a disguise?"

"Alexander....I will not be responsible."

"Someone should make you."

Arriving at the boat, the men loading in stared at the two arrivals. Carden, fussing with the tiller in the sand, looked up.

"Oh Crikey!"

Alexander swooped her up in his arms, stepped into the surf, and placed her in the boat. Then, he climbed in, sat down, and crossed his arms.

Carden, Maria, Jose, and another man stared at the duo. Maria rested a piercing gaze on Pamela.

"He wouldn't leave!"

"Is this...?" inquired Maria.

"Yes!"

Maria exchanged stares with a man standing in the surf.

"We could klonk him on the head," suggested the burly man.

"No, you could not!" exclaimed Pamela. "We've just saved him!"

Edrington smirked. She liked him. She did like him.

"Tie him up, then?"

"Not without a fight," stated Edrington, uncrossing his arms.

"He's bleedin' gentry!" said the short man in the surf. He stepped nearer Edrington. "He's got nothin' gypsy about him!"

"Neither have you, Geoff. We've got to go if we're goin'!" added Carden.

"Can ye sail?" asked the short one.

"If I wanted to sail, I'd have joined the navy," drolled the major.

"Well, ye've just done that, sir! Push off!" called Carden, taking matters into his own hand. "If'n we decide we don't want him, we'll toss him overside."

Pamela stood before him. "Get out. Get out now!"

"I am not accustomed to being ordered by a woman."

"Ye'd better get used to it quick, if yer stayin'," muttered Carden.

The men in the surf gave a shove and hopped in. Pamela lurched forward, but Edrington caught her in his lap, supporting her back with his right arm.

"This is not a casual overnight sail, Major. Go. Now. You can get to shore easily."

He helped her upright but held her on his lap, looking up into gentle concerned features. Never had he held a woman in his arms so much in one evening without ...

She eased over to the seat opposite his and shook her head.

The men took familiar places. The sail caught the wind and they were off, beating eastward.

"I'm Tom. What's yer name?" asked the burly man.

"Major Edrington."

"We cannot call you that!" stated Maria.

Pamela watched silently as her comrades bandied how to address the newcomer.

"Ed. Let's call him Ed," suggested Geoff.

"I will not be addressed in such a fashion." He rubbed his left shoulder and chest and glanced her way. His Lordship was peeking through the feigned exterior, and he frowned.

"What's yer first name, then?"

He cocked an eyebrow. No way were these ... commoners going to address him by his Christian name. Was she smiling over his predicament?

"Very well. Ed will do. You may call me Ed."

Tom and Geoff snickered. Even this abbreviation coming from the toff sounded high brow.

Carden frowned, wondering why in the world he was back in this company. He glanced at the back of the cloaked figure to his left. That was why. He shifted his gaze to *Ed*. Mr. Hornblower would not like this one bit, and...he had to call HER Mrs. Dandridge! *What a wicked web we weave,* he thought. *Come uppence. At some point, someone's going to get some come uppence. I hope it ain't me! I was just followin' orders, Mr. Hornblower, sir! Just followin' orders!*

Edrington assessed the company he found. The other female was dressed similarly as Pamela, though she sounded and probably was Spanish. Jose, too. But the others appeared to be English, and of course, the one American in the bunch.

Cloaked and leaning on the gunwale, Edrington could see exhaustion etching the gentle loveliness. The rocking of the boat reminded him of the hours in her care so many nights and days ago, speaking to him of America. He glanced towards the tiller man. Piercing through the memory, he realized that man's voice was familiar. He was part of the rescue effort. The tone of his command, he heard it those hours and hours with her, but not these others. Not the woman, not Tom or Geoff. By a process of elimination, possibly the Spaniard, or someone not here.

The wind was picking up and the boat began to heel to starboard. Edrington moved larboard into the floor of the boat and leaned against the side. Taking her shoulders gently, he pulled her towards him.

"What?" she asked sleepily.

"Come on. Lean on me. I promise to behave." She snuggled against his chest and returned to sleep. Edrington stared back at the tiller man. He was her protector, he had seen him in town accompanying her at market. He offered the concerned gaze a wry friendly smile. He closed his eyes and soon his head dropped to rest against hers.

**********

Nights of diligent observation revealed nothing more. The only ship found that could have received those cryptic signals was Indefatigables sister on patrol. Pellew seemed to mull over that idea when it was voiced those nights ago.

Horatio rested his chin in his palm and his elbow on the tiller. Eyes drooped with exhaustion.

"Sir!" came the excited whisper.

Hornblower jarred awake.

"Matthews?"

"Look, sir!"

South and east, a light low on the horizon blinked, short, short, long. When it ceased, the crew looked towards what would be the coast of France. Nothing.....but then..... a flash of light, then another....but not from France....from the only other place possible at the location.

Hornblower's mind reeled with the implications. Keith's squadron used no such signals, but this flashing, just north of their position, was coming from....Emerald.

"Damn!" He barely breathed the word.

Matthews gaped. "Cor! What'll we do, sir?" he whispered.

"Silence, men!"

Another series of flashes came from the south east, then a final long one from Emerald.

Impossible. Hornblower felt anger rising within. Pellew should be told. He motioned the men to silence and they waited, low, below the gunwales, peering over the edge, waiting.

The moon had set and the night was lit only by the constellations. Emerald sailed past, unaware of the black boat, the one taken in the battle with Magie Noir. The boat that had been their salvation the night the black ship exploded, the boat hauled to Indy's decks containing Horatio and Pamela. Hornblower twisted his lips wryly, recalling Pellew's decision to keep the small dark jolly boat, and he ducked lower.

The watch on Emerald was oblivious to observation. The ship disappeared into the dark night. She would turn and beat back eastward in another hour, in another two, Indefatigable would appear, wind willing.

Waiting.

"A ship, sir! Boat really," whispered Matthews.

"I see it," said Hornblower lowly. "Do not make a sound." ...and he wished the launch into invisibility.

The boat was a small sloop of about forty feet. She came steadily on, in the dark, tacking slowly on the morning breeze. She passed by, unknowing. Voices were audible...French voices.

Matthews stared into the features of his officer. Receiving a nod, he slipped quietly forward and raised the black sail. Hornblower leaned back into the stern seat and adjusted the tiller. The little troop followed silently behind, like a black panther upwind of lumbering prey.

Hornblower assessed the situation. He could not call on Emerald for assistance. Somehow she was involved. Indefatigable was not yet here. The sloop could not have that many men on board. When they came under the spit of land, she'd lose wind. That would be the moment to strike, before their own little craft lost headway.

"Prepare to board, men," he ordered evenly. "She'll turn to line up with the channel, lose wind, that's when we'll strike. Be ready to jump."

In the faintest gray light of the coming dawn, Matthews and the others shocked expressions eased under the familiar command. Hornblower must know what he is doing. Had he not always led them to victory in the past? Besides, it was war, and he was their officer.

The events transpired rapidly. A man aft on the sloop saw them at the last moment, black against a graying sea, and raised the alarm, but they were committed. A scramble onto the heeling deck was delayed but a fraction, a crucial moment in time, a fraction that can give an enemy the upper hand.

The fracas was in full swing. Men came from below deck. They were outnumbered. With the clang of sword against sword, a French accented voice spoke English.

"Surrender! Or he dies!" The speaker held a dagger across Hornblower's throat and another a pistol at his chest.

*****

The longboat, captained by the one armed Carden, crewed by a motley band of faux gypsies, and a refined but disgruntled equestrian of sorts, met up with the wooden savior late the next afternoon.

The sleeping quarters on the schooner left much to be desired, but compared to the open boat, they seemed luxurious. The crew of the yacht was in the employ of certain clandestine services and was made available for the sea journey, a three to four day sail, depending on the wind and weather. The major brooded and Pamela avoided the gentleman. She glanced his way but returned her stare to the southern coast of Spain, recalling his usefulness to ward off the seamier crew when they first arrived. The down side was what followed. Muscles tugged her features, revealing frustrated thoughts.
She recalled his grip as he latched on to her upper arm that day and marched her as far aft as possible.

"What do you expect from these men dressed in this seductive milkmaid attire? Men are only human, my dear, and sailors more human than most."

"I did not pack alternate clothing, thanks to you!"

"Oh. This is MY fault, is it?"

"It was you that showed up on my doorstep. Not once, but twice! It is a wonder I had wits enough to make the boat!" she whispered angrily.

"Wits? Wits? You have lost your wits!"

"Don't start that again! I am here and I do not wish to listen to another of your tirades about what I should or should not be doing!"

The major's face reddened deeply. "If I were..." Should he say it? "If I were..."

"...My husband you would have me over your knee! Threats, Major? Please. I am a grown woman and I can take care of myself!"

"Forgive me for interfering there on deck not more than five minutes ago. And if I WERE your husband, it would no longer be a THREAT!"

She huffed out a breath. "I wish you had not come. I do not know WHY you insisted on doing so."

"You do not want to know why I insisted on coming." He ran a hand over his left chest and shoulder.

"What have you done?"

"Nothing."

"Let me see." She reached for his shirt buttons.

With pinched lips, he pulled her hand down. He was touching her. Like a sudden dip in the barometer, his anger fled. In a brief second, he thought he recognized the softening, but...no... it had to be his own reflection....his own vain wishes. He let go the hand.

"It is nothing, I said," and he turned away.

"Stubborn."

"Takes one to know one," he threw back at her.

She sighed. "Major...all we ever do is quarrel the moment we near one another."

He stared at the ship's wake. "It is your contrary attitude."

"I've seen you rubbing your chest since...since the other night. Did you injure your wound when you so.... gallantly... assisted me?"

He wrinkled his brow and squinted. "Gallant? Do not use such terms with me."

"You were very gallant. Let me check your wound."

"It is fine," he clipped, then kinder, "I thank you for your concern."

"I do thank you for rescuing me from that man."

"Are we making up now?"

"No," she grinned wryly.

"Good. I would not want to lose the edge I'm feeling. One more incident might put me OVER the edge and you over my knee ...and I'll worry about the consequences after."

"Very unlike you, Major."

"You think?"

She laughed and the change in expression weakened his resolve. She was lovely. The wind softly lifting the curls from her shoulder and caressing the soft flesh exposed by the muslin blouse. He wanted to dive into her embrace. Turning, he wrenched away, retreating. She was married...pregnant...not his....not available. Unconsciously, he rubbed his chest again. The muscles, not accustomed to being used, were sore and pained him. She was right. Something snapped the night he lifted her onto the mare.

"Come below and let me check your wound. Dr. Blakeney would be displeased." She spoke softly, kindly, concern filling the words. She nudged him towards the stairs.

They arrived at the small aft dining area.

"Take your coat off."

He leaned against the table and watched her. When he failed to comply, she gently removed his dark gray topcoat. "The cloth of this coat is very fine. It must have cost a pretty penny. I suppose with the pay of a major, one can afford such finery. Has your new uniform not yet arrived?" She started on the buttons of the matching vest.

He saw the nimble fingers undo each button and listened to the war of voices in his head, shouting warnings, but he did not move. She tugged at the vest, but it was secure under his arms.

She frowned that he did not answer the small talk. "You're as difficult as a child, Major."

Taking both flaps in hand she pushed the vest back over his broad shoulders, leaning against him briefly, her bare neck inches from his mouth. He closed his eyes and breathed, feeling her tug the vest down his back. When he opened his eyes, she was undoing the buttons of his shirt. He covered both of her hands with his right, marshaling his resistance. She looked into the wary eyes as he gave a single shake of his head.

"It's all right, Major," she said softly. She lifted the shirting away from the skin, causing it to brush his chest lightly. The fabric's feel was soft as she peered inside the opening. She unbuttoned three more buttons and pulled the shirt back. A redness was obvious around the freshly healed wound. She lay a hand on it gently.

"It's feverish. Does it hurt?" When he did not answer, she met his gaze.

"When I kissed you that day....I could not see you." He placed his hand over hers. "I can see you now."

He took her chin and leaned towards her. She leaned away and he stopped.

"You want me to kiss you."

"No."

"Yes, you do...or you would not be here with me like this. Touching me..."

"I am concerned, Major."

"You need a good kissing....and a good deal more. Alexander is my name. You used it at hospital. Say it now. Say, Alexander, do not kiss me. Say it and I will release you."

"A...Alexander...Alexander..." she was mesmerized by his dark eyes, the tight waves of blonde hair neatly placed, the strength of the arms that held her. Coming out of the hypnotic spell of the major, she placed a hand over his lips before his lips could cover hers. "No! You must not! Not again. Let me go!"

"What are you afraid of? Did not the first kiss confirm your faithfulness?"

Tears flowed and took him by surprise. He relaxed his grip about her, then let go completely, and turned away. "Forgive me." He bowed his head, then began to button his shirt. He could hear a sniff behind, but did not look.

"No. Wait. Come here." She pressed him around and sniffed again, not looking at his face but his chest. "Sit down." She pulled the shirt off his shoulder and peered at the wound. Red, purpling, heated. She put her hand on his forehead. "Do you think you have a fever?" She put the back of her hand on his cheek, checking the temperature.

"Not of the kind you seek," he said softly.

She shook her head. "Don't do this,.... please. I never intended anything but to help. Do not misconstrue my concern." Finding a cloth, she dunked it in a cold bucket of water, cooled it in the air, folded it, and lay it against the red skin. "Hold it here. Tell me if I hurt you." She began to lightly massage his left shoulder, back, and up to the side of his neck.

Letting his head lean to the right shoulder, he closed his eyes and let her minister.

"Is this helping?"

"It feels quite good." Gazing askance, he watched her fingers gently prod his skin and muscles.

"I'm not hurting you?"

"Not my flesh, you aren't. It is my heart that is breaking."

She grinned wryly. "Heart? You? I thought it was just that male ego of yours that was injured." Taking the cloth she fanned it and lay it back over the red area, then resumed the massage.

"You cut me to the quick, madam. I know who and what I am. I know my capabilities. I know what I want. I know you are married to the wrong man."

"Oh, Major! You are insufferable! You have never met my husband. He is the best of men."

"That may be true, but he does not know you."

"And you do?"

"Yes. Shall I tell you?"

"No. Don't."

"I will anyway. Your parents over indulged you. That is most obvious. Too free a hand letting you have your way and too inclusive. You are like a spirited mare, too energetic for your own good. You need to be led, guided, reined in, when necessary. Like now. If this man you call husband lets you go on so, he is an idiot."

"Well, that is the point, is it not? He does not know, nor will he ever."

"Ah yes. Your guilt over the lie. Why did you? Do you not want the child?"

"It is none of yours to know, sir."

"Ah. The sir is back. I am making you angry."

"Always."

"You see?"

"See what?"

"I know you."

"Oh!" She took the cloth and threw it into the bucket. "I'm through with you!"

He reached and snatched her arm swiftly. "Argh!" Paling and grabbing his left shoulder, he panted through the pain, gaining control of it quickly.

She saw it all. He was in more discomfort than he was letting on. She put aside the personal anger and turned it onto his injury.

"Damn you for making me care!" She pushed him back to sit on the table and replaced the cold cloth on his reddened skin. "Hold this!" His breathing returned to normal as the pain subsided. Rummaging in the galley cabinet, she found a bottle of liquor. Removing the stopper, she sniffed it then held it under his nose. "What is this?"

"Whiskey, I'd say."

She poured a glass. "Drink it. It may ease the pain."

He tried to lift his left hand to take it and felt the sharp shaft burn in his chest. The muscles in his face twitched, defeating his attempt to hide the hurt.

"Men!" She held the cloth and put the drink in his workable hand. "I wish Dr. Blakeney were here."

The whiskey burned as it flowed down his throat. "I, for one, am glad he is not." He drank again.

"Why? Because he would have you back in bed before you could blink an eye?"

He did not answer.

Buttoning began.

"I can..." he winced with the movement of his left hand.

"No, you can't. Damn." She poured him another drink and completed buttoning his attire.

"Are you sure you want me to drink all this? I am getting quite light headed."

She searched the cabinets and the surrounding area, sighing with defeat. She lifted her skirt and reached underneath, shifting cloth.

His left eyebrow rose and he weaved slightly where he sat. "I say...what are you doing?"

"Be quiet." As she removed the white slip, a gleam of steel appeared in her hand.

"Where did you get that?" He turned his head to get a better view of the handle. "What Spaniard did you lift that from? Or was it a gift?"

"You should not insult a woman when she has a dagger in her hand." She cut through the edge of the cloth and ripped. "I'll do you the favor of eliminating the ruffle....or would you prefer I left it? No, you might say it is a trophy." She held up the wide white strip of fabric, then positioned it around his neck. Taking his left elbow, she bent his arm. "Relax. Do not tense the muscles in your shoulder. Let me move your arm."

"Yes, ma'am."

Easing his arm into the looped material, she adjusted the knot of the sling.

"This is the second time you have presented your lovely neck so near my lips," he stated. "You try me, madam. You try me sorely."

"It is not intentional, sir."

"Are you angry?"

"I thought you KNEW me?"

"My faculties ... are somewhat...affected ...by your medicinal libations."

She stared quizzically. "How is that?"

"How is what?"

"The sling. Do you feel any stress on these muscles?"

"Hm. Maybe just a little."

She reached behind his neck to adjust the knot and felt warm breath upon her neck.

"Now?"

"Not quite there."

She started to lean over his shoulder again but caught the slightly inebriated smirk.

"What's all this then?" asked Geoff.

The two startled at the address.

"The major has injured his wound. I'm glad you are here, Mr. Reynolds. I will let you finish the task. I suggest you rest, Major."

"She's in a bit of a hurry. Sling not right, sir?"

"No. It's fine. Leave me be, man. On second thought, fill my glass."

That was the last time the two had been alone to speak to one another.

Looking west, she could see the sun lowering quickly with the last long summer hours of daylight. Carden, overseer of the longboat, had it positioned and provisioned for boarding.

Maria was in conference with the ship's captain, arranging the return rendezvous. At last, she approached Pamela.

"He isn't coming is he? The captain will let him stay on board?"

"He refuses. He foresaw our plan to leave him. The captain would not reveal why, but he will not go against the major's wishes. He comes."

"He is injured, Maria!"

"I can see that, but what are we to do? There is no choice. We should have tied him up and left him on the beach."

"Hindsight. We were in a hurry. Maybe we could leave him with Carden."

Maria heaved a sigh. "Wishful thinking, my lady. He is more head strong than you."

Pamela twisted her mouth at the comparison. Was she head strong? Everyone around her seemed to think so. An unfamiliar pout appeared.

"How's it goin', Cap'n Carden?"

"Boat's ready, Tom."

"What're ye shakin' yer head over?"

"Them two. He's broodin' and she's poutin'. This is no place to be havin' these kinda goin's on. The Dagoes and the Frogs are the enemy, but havin' these two here ... I just don't know. Wish we could leave her here, but that Richard bloke has been eyein' her since we come aboard. She's lucky the Major fended him off! I wish I'd gone back to Blighty rather than be in this perdicament. Indeed, I do. And if her husband knew of any of this, cor, I think he'd take to floggin'! Me! Fer lettin' her do this stuff."

"Aye, well, she's a mind of her own that one."

"Aye, ye don't have to tell me."

Maria approached Edrington. "Sir, I do wish you would remain here. The captain informs me he will do whichever you wish."

"I cannot let her go on this adventure alone."

"She will not be alone."

"You know what I mean."

"You are injured."

"It is better."

"The time grows late. We must prepare you. Come with me."

When they re-emerged from below, Pamela stared, then snickered. The major sported black hair loosely tied, rough clothing in brown and tan, sling still in use, and a golden earring.

"Do I not look the part? Although my head smells like a Hessian boot. I am glad my mamah shall never see this. I fear I would be on the receiving end of her parasol."

She giggled and pinched her lips to avoid smiling.

The troupe went over the side into the waiting boat. Maria gave the ship's captain a parting glance.

"Wish us luck, Captain Picard."

He saluted and bowed. "We will be waiting."

The longboat lay off the coast for the signal. It came and Carden turned the tiller to aim the bow inland. The light surf pushed the boat until it ground into the sandy beach.

Several men ran forward to pull it farther in as the waves lifted. The passengers and parcels off loaded, the boat was then turned upside down and lay as far from the sea as the land allowed.

Carden patted its hull. "I hope we see ye again, old girl." He hurried over to the waiting wagons. Manuel was there as well as Jose and they greeted the one-armed Englishman warmly.

The front wagon lumbered off with a jangle of bells around the donkey's necks. Jose and Carden took the driver's seat with Maria, Edrington, Pamela, and Manuel in the back. Tom and Geoff rode with Diego, Consuella, and Marco in the rear wagon.

Coming up from the beach, the wagons followed the rough road to a clearing with an encampment of similar conveyances. As the wagon slowed, Maria crouched at the rear of the wagon.

"Do not speak to anyone. Let Jose or the others do the talking. Comprendan?"

Pamela nodded.

Edrington said, "Si, Senora."

"You speak Spanish?" querried Pamela.

"No."

"You do smell like a Hessian boot."

Pamela moved forward to peer between Jose and Manuel. A large man with dark hair and a scraggly beard met Maria. She spoke quietly to the man and put a pouch in his hand. It would seem the next leg of their journey was secured.

Maria returned and the group set about to make camp for the night. The wagon train would depart early in the morning. Blankets were spread, and for the first time in five days, no motion came to rock them to sleep.

Pamela stared at the stars and wondered where Horatio was, if he were looking at the same twinkling lights, if he were safe.

Edrington squatted beside her. "Are you all right?" he whispered.

"Yes."

"You will stay here."

Was that a command or a question?

"Yes."

"Good. Goodnight."

She turned on her side. Edrington, Carden, Jose, and Manuel slipped away in the darkness. She checked for the rest. They remained. Perhaps it was a call of nature. She lay back down and returned to thoughts of Horatio and the small rise of abdomen under her hand. With a deep sigh, she closed her eyes and went to sleep.

The next morning, the smell of breakfast woke her. Bacon and eggs were frying in a griddle. The aroma of fresh coffee hung in the sweet tangy air of the dewy and warm summer morning. Pamela sat up, seeking her companions. Her body registered the change of sleeping habitat and she groaned. A hatted man turned at the sound and grinned.

Edrington.

He stood and brought her a mug of coffee. He offered his hand to help her rise. She took it and felt the lift. He was quite strong, despite his convalescence. What was he wearing? She reached beside his ear, twisted her finger in his hair and pulled out a blonde strand. Glancing at Maria, she looked back into his features. "What have you done now?"

"I could not abide it." He lifted his hat. An orange bandanna wrapped his head, concealing most of his blonde hair. He pushed the strand she exposed back behind his ear.

She clucked her tongue and frowned.

"Senora Maria says it will do so wipe that frown off your pretty face and drink your coffee. Are you hungry?"

She gulped the hot liquid. "Starving."

He departed and she took a moment to survey the grounds in light of day. A rise lay across the road and she headed that direction. It was a little steep and she had to use her free hand to assist the climb. Reaching the top, the view spread out before her. The Mediterranean sparkled blue. The sun beat down granting jewel like twinkling to the water. Fishing boats dotted the inland areas, but nothing could be seen of the two-master that brought them so near.

The sun heated her skin and soothed the body ache from hard sleeping conditions. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply.

"Beautiful. Magnificent."

Edrington.

"Here." He pulled a roundish lump from his pocket. "Breakfast." Eggs and bacon were stuffed between two huge pieces of bread. "Sit. You don't mind if I join you, do you?"

"I am not up for an argument this morning, Major... I mean Eduardo."

He grinned wryly with a smirk.

She snorted. "That is really quite adorable." As she sat, she missed the utter confounding amazement that followed his most recent mask.

He sat beside her. "You what?" he asked, hoping for confirmation.

"You heard me."

"A kind word from your ladyship? My heart is all aflutter."

"Ladyship? Not hardly, your LORDship."

He cleared his throat several times and adjusted his seat on the ground.

Swallowing a huge bite of breakfast, she asked, "What is it?"

"Nothing, nothing." He inhaled deeply. "It is beautiful here."

Lips stretched in a smile, with mouth full and returning to chew. "Hm. It is.
How is your ..." she pointed at his shoulder then at hers, "...your wound?"

"Better. Thank you for asking."

"What?" She bit another bite.

He shrugged. "I'm enjoying our truce, I suppose."

"It is too lovely this morning to fight with you, ...sir," she grinned.

He chuckled. "No. You are not mad. I can tell." He stretched out his long legs, lay on his side, and propped his head on his right hand. "What is this?" He lifted her hand and twirled the ring between his fingers.

"My wedding ring."

"Not much of a wedding ring."

She pulled her hand away. "Don't spoil it, Major."

"No. No, you mistake my meaning. The ring itself is lovely. I meant...what I meant was it is not a proper wedding ring."

"Why don't you stop while your ahead?"

"Pamela..... I did not mean it as it sounded."

She felt generous on such a beautiful day. "You mean it does not follow the standard gold band."

"Yes. Yes." He stared into her bright brown eyes. "Thank you....for ... understanding my fumbled meaning. May I?" He reached for her hand and she extended it hesitantly. Pulling it closer, he examined the two dolphins. "Very fine workmanship." He twisted it around her finger. "It means something special to you."

"It does. Very special."

"Would you tell me?"

She breathed deeply. "About my husband?"

He nodded.

She sighed. "He's quite marvelous. Handsome, caring, sweet. He will be an admiral someday."

"An admiral! How did you meet?...you being an American?"

Her chest rose and fell with a long slow breath. So many memories rushed. "He rescued me. He and his ship, his men. I was kidnapped by pirates. The ship ...your countrymen...found me on was named Dolphin."

"It must have been dreadful."

Her eyes lowered and her features darkened with the memory. "My father was killed." The prick of tears came and surprised her. How could she think she would be free of the pain so quickly?

He sat up, instinctively seeking to embrace, but she turned to hide her face. "I am sorry to hear it. You loved your father."

The audible sniff had him seeking for a handkerchief, but he had none in this garb. He slipped off the sling and offered it.

She chuckled and pulled a cloth of her own to dry her eyes. "Thank you, Alexander. Forgive me. I did not think my feelings were still so close." The memories overwhelmed and she lay down on the damp grass opposite the direction he had lain. She sniffed and took another bite of the dwindling sandwich.

He carefully slipped closer, pivoting and resting on the opposite side. Would she let him comfort her? This woman that gave him back his life? He would gladly give his own, not only in gratitude, but in love.

Softly, he spoke, "So a British naval officer rescued you and the two of you fell in love."

"Yes." The voice was soft and thin like the morning mist.

"And you rescued me, and ...I fell in love."

She rolled into his chest as she sought to see his face. "Alexander." The remnants of tears slid down her temple. "I only meant to give you hope. Forgive me if ...if... It was not intended." She lay a hand on his cheek. "I never hid my marriage from you."

He closed his eyes and pressed his lips against her palm, then held her hand against his cheek. "But you like me, do you not?" He sought hope in her eyes.

"Yes. I do like you. Can we not be friends?"

"You ask a great deal. I am a man, not a saint."

"I know."

"And you do much I disapprove."

"As you have said."

"If ever I meet him I shall advise him."

"Advise who?"

"Your husband."

"Then, I shall have to be sure that never happens. He would worry and I cannot have him worry."

"Then, stop this madness and go back to Gibraltar. Wait for him there. Grow roses. Do needlepoint. Read romance novels. But not this. Not this Pamela. You do not realize the danger you enter. I fear for you. I fear for all of us." He sat up and she beside him, leaning against his shoulder.

"You are sorry you came."

"No. I owe you my life."

"You must not feel that way."

"I do feel that way." He turned his head and realized the proximity. "My lips burn to kiss you. Move away, for I cannot."

She rose to stare out to sea. He stood beside her.

She turned to him quickly.

He startled, asking, "What?"

"You look utterly ridiculous in that hat." She carefully navigated the steep slope.

He followed, sliding down on his heels. "Whatever do you mean? This is the height of fashion for all British spies."

"Shhh! They will hear you!" He settled feet firmly on the ground. Taking the sling he held, she placed it around his neck and put the arm back in it.

"Gracias, mi amiga."

"De nada, senor."

*********

Heat shimmered in the noonday sun through the glass overhead. He fell to the side and felt the heat pierce his shirt sleeve. Righting his body, he wavered. When would they come? He fell forward onto his face, hitting his head against the metal on the way down. Sand clung to his cheek. Swollen, dry, cracked lips parted to suck in the heated air, bringing sand onto his tongue. He tucked his knees under him and rested on his face.

"Water. Water," he whispered to no one. *Tell them,* he thought. *Tell them anything.*
"No. Never. Never," he breathed.

Muffled voices came to his ears. A brief shadow blocked the sun that entered from overhead. He tried to look up through the glass where his torturers observed their handiwork.

The crank on the iron door sounded. Less hot air rushed in as the super heated air sought to rise. He pushed his body up with his hands, and tried to open his swollen eyes. His arms gave way, and he fell to the earth.

"Look at your officer. How long will you let him suffer? Tell us what we want to know before it is too late," prodded the French accent.

Held between two guards, Matthews stared at the slumped figure, more visible through the open oven door than the view through the glass. Waistcoat and topcoat removed, the frilled shirt, no longer white, clung to the body from old blood and sweat and shriveled against him like a dried date. Hornblower's cheek was swollen and cut, similar to Matthews, similar handiwork from the French captors. Matthews frowned, pressing lips tightly, squeezing back the unfamiliar sting of tears. The last orders given him were silence, no matter what. No Matter What! But this? Torture? This was cruel beyond measure.

"He has gone for three days without water. You kill him with your silence. Dehydration is a slow torturous killer, not to mention the heat of the oven. Do you want his death on your conscience?"

Hornblower stirred and tried to warn with a shake his head. His tongue was thick within his mouth. The attempted "no" sounded like a groan. He tried again, but his throat constricted and no sound emitted.

"If I speak, ye'll give him to me?" asked the old sailor.

"Tell us what we want to know."

"I'm only a rating, sir."

"Tell what you know."

"We're just waitin' fer yer fleet to come out. Come out an' fight. That's all, sir."

"Why were you left in that black boat? What did you hope to gain?"

Matthews hesitated, watching Hornblower stir fruitlessly in the sand. He pulled against the restraining hands. "Let me go to him, sir. Please."

"Shove him back in and close the door. No Water!"

"Wait! Wait, sir. There was just one thing else we seen." Matthews stared at the red swollen features of his young officer. He was being cooked alive in that oven. He could not let it go on. He could not. "There was a light. We seen a light. A signal, we figured. We was left to watch fer the signal, that's all, sir."

"How did you come to board the Normandie?"

"She passed right near us. Mr. Hornblower thought we could take her, sir. That she might have word of Bony. Where he might be. That's all, I swear, sir. That were all we knew."

The tall Frenchman scowled down at Matthews, squinting his displeasure and disgust. With a jerk of his hand, he ordered the rating released.

Matthews dropped to his knees and lifted Hornblower into his lap.

The French officer strode from the compound and his squad of soldiers followed. As they exited through the iron gates, the other guards followed, allowing the other ratings to join Matthews. They ran to his side.

"Is he alive, Matty?"

"He is, Oldroyd." His voice broke with emotion. "He is." Matthews held him and brushed the sand from the injured face. What would Hornblower say when he realized Matthews had disobeyed orders? That he told all but the revelation of Emerald? "I couldna let em cook ye alive, sir. I couldna!" Matthews hugged and rocked the unconcious leftenant.

"Matty!"

"Let's get him out o this blasted heat, boys!"

********

In the sick berth of Indefatigable, Sebastian bent over the recovering rating.

Pellew was called and frowned deeply. "Doctor?"

"He came to asking for Mr. Hornblower. He is still weak, Captain. But if you wish it, I will try to rouse him."

"I do, Doctor."

Sebastian retreated to the dispensary.

Pellew gazed anxiously at the bandaged rating. Hardy. One of Hornblower's men. Where were the rest? Where was Hornblower? What befell them and why was Hardy wounded and alone in the boat? It had been five days of worry, prayer, and hope Hardy would survive and give some word to explain the absence of his recently returned officer. Hornblower had been back less than a fortnight and now gone again.

The emotional gamut was run. Apprehension. What had become of Hornblower and the men? Worry. Was he dead? Captured? What? Anger. Anger, at what he accidentally overheard when coming to check on Hardy. It was utterly fantastic! The memory of the entire revelation replayed.

Arriving at the plotted position, Hornblower and the boat were missing. Slowing Indefatigable, a man at every mast searched for the black craft. Turning Indefatigable closer into shore, the boat was sighted and seemed devoid of occupation. When the ship was navigated nearer, the men hooked onto the craft to find Hardy lying in a pool of his own blood, shot through.

Sebastian was called and went down into the boat immediately. Finding life still in the man, he sewed him where he lay. It was difficult to believe there could be an ounce of blood left in the rating, but he still lived.

Back on board Indefatigable, the doctor neatened up his handiwork and bandaged the man. The wound was clean. Bullet traveled straight through, missed vital organs, but the entry and exit wounds were large and he lost a lot of blood. That was obvious from the boat. The men had tilted the black jolly boat to spill the gore into the sea, upon which several sharks were seen to mill. Was that the fate of the rest?

Every man on board sought to know of the disappearance, Kennedy included. It was the overheard whispered conversation between Kennedy and Sebastian that gave another edge to already fearsome thoughts. No. Not Hornblower. But this was his best friend, and Dr. Sebastian seemed to be able to gain a confidence even from the recalcitrant Hornblower. Pamela had something to do with that. Pamela had something to do with what was revealed. He still had difficulty forming the thought even after confronting the whisperers. The shock on the faces of the two men when he asked, barely containing the erupting temper of what was guessed, hinted, suspected. He called both men immediately to follow him to his cabin. This was not something to be discussed around any listening ears, as his own should not have heard. But a captain knows what is about his own ship, it was the totally fantastic nature of this bit of news that astounded.

Once the door of his cabin closed behind his servant, he rounded on his leftenant and his surgeon. The two stood, waiting, Kennedy the more nervous of the two. Pellew's visage looked angrier than a volcano in eruption. He paced before the two officers.

"I cannot answer whatever you wish to ask, Captain. I am a doctor. I cannot...."

"SILENCE!"

Sebastian blinked and obeyed. Never had he been intimidated by this man he highly respected. He had a feeling this was going to be a new experience. He glanced at Kennedy. Why should he be surprised that it would come about over Mr. Hornblower?

Pellew paced again, stormier than ever. He stopped and wiped over his face. "I cannot... I CAN NOT ...even BRING MYSELF TO SPEAK THE WORDS!" He held his voice down, but the shout was there all the same.

Kennedy swallowed again.

He stepped in front of Kennedy and stared. Kennedy could not look at the burning black embers afire with anger and disbelief.

Then, Sebastian. He peered into the face of the physician and spoke.

"You knew of this. You knew and you did not tell me." The memory of those last moments with Hornblower on Foudroyant rushed in. The uneasiness he felt. Telling Hornblower he valued him. There was something wrong and now he knew what. God! And, he let the man sail off to Nelson!

"I am a doctor, Captain. Confidences shared..." Sebastian spoke no more. He knew what Hornblower was to Pellew....more than an officer. "It is not why he is gone. It is not. Do not entertain the thought."

"But you two saw fit to CONSIDER IT? Whispering between yourselves the POSSIBILITY?!?"

"O...on...only in passing, sir!" added Kennedy quickly. "I...I agree with Dr. Sebastian. It's not that, sir. It can't be. He... he was more like his old self after Naples. He wouldn't here, sir. Where would he go?"

Suddenly the anger subsided. Where would he go? Not France. There was no welcome there. Would he rather desertion, resignation, than capture? Overwhelming emotion took him. Taking a step to the stern window, he held on to the post and bowed his head.

Kennedy glanced at Sebastian and they waited.

"Go back to your patient, doctor. Save him. Find out what happened on that damned black boat. You, too, Mr. Kennedy. Leave me."

Just recalling those moments brought back the emotional drain. Sebastian arrived with a small bottle. Pulling the tipped stopper, he held it under Hardy's nose. The man sucked in a quick breath and blinked rolling his head to the side.

Sebastian held Hardy's shoulder and whispered softly. "Hardy. It's Dr. Sebastian. You are on Indefatigable. We pulled you from the boat. Can you remember what happened? Captain Pellew is here."

Pellew stepped beside Sebastian. "Take your ease, man. Can you tell us what happened to the rest of the men? Mr. Hornblower?"

Hardy blinked, seeking to focus on the two men. "Sir..." He licked his lips.

"Let me get you some water, Hardy." Sebastian helped him drink. "Not too much, not too much!"

"Signal, sir. A boat. Mr. Hornblower thought we could take her. Bad. Went bad. They had Mr. Hornblower."

"Who, man?" asked Pellew.

"Frogs. I jumped in. Thought I could get help, sir. Shot." He winced. "Went under when I feels a line, sir. Trailing line on the black sheep."

"He means the black boat, sir. It's what the ratings call her." It was Kennedy. He heard Hardy was on the verge of waking and entered softly behind Pellew.

"Was I wrong to leave him, sir? I shouldna...shouldna left him. They were threatenin to kill him." Hardy's eyes filled with tears. "I'm sorry, Cap'n. I shouldna left him."

"You did right, Hardy. You did right. Else we'd not known and thought you all dead. You were right to come for help."

"Is it too late, sir?"

"No. No. We'll find him. We'll find all of them. Rest yourself now."

Pellew sighed and glanced at Sebastian and Kennedy, then back to Hardy, thinking. How would this rescue be accomplished?

"Signal, Cap'n."

"Hm? What's that, Hardy?"

"Signal."

"You saw another signal?"

"Aye...not from shore."

"From the boat you boarded?"

"Aye and...and....Emerald, sir. A signal from Emerald."

Pellew's countenance went from worry to realization to controlled anger. He turned from the rating. Staring at the deck but seeing the images and thoughts that raced through his mind. Damnation. Damnation! The accident. The so called accident. It was too stupid a move. Too stupid. But what it meant had been too, too fantastic to consider, ...not consciously. Not where he could twist it around and examine it. But all the pieces fell into place. The escaping French schooner. Emerald vying with Indefatigable to chase her. Raming Indefatigables stern and fouling the mizzen with Emerald's fore. Hearing the laughter of the French wafting over the waves as the schooner beat west and south. He was seething.

"Mister KENNEDY. Tell Mr. Bracegirdle to come about on a heading that will bring us to bear on Emerald. And TELL him to clear for action!"