Heart of Gold, Heart of Stone
by Janet

Most of this story takes place around 1798, after the disaster at Muzillac, but the last chapter takes us forward several years in Horatio's life.

Chapter One

Two figures stood on the dock, braced against the driving wind. Small pellets of rain pummeled them as they strained to see the approaching boat.

"We thought it imperative that you should travel with, er, the least ceremony possible," the admiral was saying, his cloak fluttering wildly.

"Admiral," said the lady with great firmness, "you are not encouraging me to look with much hope on this ship­of which I have yet to catch the slightest glimpse!"

Neither did the admiral think that the misty rain would permit her a peek at the prize ship that would bear her home to England, and he was a little relieved. He knew it to be somewhat . . . battered.

The lady peered with narrowed eyes into the gloom. "Well, I hear the boat, at any event," she said. She was a little above average height, dressed in a warm pelisse and jaunty fur-trimmed hat. She was not beautiful, but had been called pretty. Her hair was fashionably dark and her eyes a cloudy blue-grey.

She saw something in the distance, and rounded on her late father's old friend. "Admiral," she said crisply, "I am not inclined to overestimate my own importance, but I cannot believe you would set me to sea in that!"

The admiral cleared his throat uneasily. La Dora had been captured only a short time ago by the British ship Indefatigable and had not yet had the benefit of a freshening up. The bow gleamed dully in the distance.

"And now, sir, I see that you are sending me not only in a large, ungainly tub, but I am to go under the command of two boys?" A sharp nod of her head indicated the two officers approaching in the boat. It was too dark to make out their features, but they were obviously boyishly slender.

The admiral could have moaned with frustration. Alexandra was not a difficult girl, but she could be rather stubborn.

"Alex, Sir Edward Pellew has assured me that these two gentleman are excellent officers. Lieutenant Hornblower, I believe, is especially competent. His bravery has been noted by even such irascible fellows as Commodore Waverly and Captain Foster."

"You don't say they agreed on that?" she asked incredulously, eyebrows raised.

"Indeed they did," Admiral Crispin affirmed, relieved that Alex had been listening. "And Foster and Captain Hammond were in on his commissioning."

Alexandra did not reply, but turned to strain her eyes again, appearing to be mollified. A moment or two went by before she spoke again, this time in a much altered tone. "Well, sir, this young prodigy of yours appears to be quite handsome."

The admiral knew better than to reply to that.

"And so is the other," she added, turning to show him a mischievous grin. "All is forgiven, sir. And now, I must be off. Would it be beneath my dignity to swim out to meet them, do you think?"

The admiral should have been relieved, but he found himself rather uncomfortable. "Now, Alex, you mustn't get up to your tricks. Try to remember that you are a lady of quality, and they are still wet behind the ears. They haven't had the experience of the world that you have."

"But, Admiral Crispin, you said they had weathered great battles and conquered both seas and Spaniards!" Her tone was quite innocent but her eyes sparkled wickedly.

"I know Richard and I can trust you to behave properly," the admiral said sternly, but without much hope. Not even Alex's brother had much influence over her. "Hush now, here they come."

The two men were scrambling up onto the dock.

"Gentlemen!" the admiral said eagerly­much more eagerly than he meant to, but he was in a hurry to pass them quickly before Alex and get on with it. He did trust Sir Edward's judgment, but it was troubling to think of Alex, as valuable as she was to England (not to mention to himself), risking enemy ships with a skeleton crew, commanded by such a young man. But no one wanted to advertize Alex's presence, and Lt. Hornblower had proved his mettle, as he had been responsible for the capture of the La Dora in the first place.

"Ah, Mr. Hornblower," he said brusquely, stepping up to meet the taller of the two. "Congratulations on your prize. No mean feat for a young man such as yourself."

"Thank you, sir," said Mr. Hornblower with great formality, standing stiffly at attention. He did not so much as glance in Alex's direction.

She noticed this and smiled appreciatively. The other young man was not so reticent. Frank admiration was in his look. Alex looked back, and liked what she saw. His cherubic blue eyes were positively glowing. Blond hair, clinging damply to his head, and perfectly portioned features were saved from femininity by a purposeful jaw and chin.
"Miss Wingate, this is Lieutenant Horatio Hornblower." Lt. Hornblower bowed a little awkwardly, and Alexandra curtsied. She was used to summing up people quickly, and she put her skill to practice.
Under a mop of curly brown hair were brown­rather a mossy brown­eyes; high cheekbones; a large, straight nose and a wide mouth. There was something slightly mysterious about the face: it was inscrutable at present, yet those eyes looked as if they had a great deal behind them.
"How do you do, sir?" she asked politely.

"Well, ma'am. And please allow me to introduce Acting Lieutenant Kennedy."

"Mr. Kennedy." Another curtsy. Kennedy's bow was more practiced.

"There's no time to waste, of course," Admiral Crispin said unnecessarily.

Hornblower and Kennedy stooped in unison to pick up Alexandra's trunk. As the sailors handed it down and she waved farewell to the admiral, Alex wondered how she was supposed to climb down into the boat with her dignity intact. She was no stranger to ships, but she was used to a little more pomp and luxury. This could prove an interesting voyage.

But the captain of the La Dora had apparently foreseen this problem. He and Kennedy had already clamored down the ladder and were waiting for her below, arms outstretched to assist her.

"Turn your heads, men," said Hornblower.

This struck Miss Wingate as rather humorous, but young men were sensitive, as she knew, so she bit back her chuckle.

The number of men on deck of the Dora as she was hoisted aboard seemed rather excessive, but she had anticipated being seen as a three-headed calf, and merely nodded serenely. Oh, yes. A very interesting voyage.

Kennedy began barking orders, and suddenly the ship sprang to life, the men jumping and scattering, a few scuttling up the rigging like so many spiders.

"This way, ma'am," said Hornblower, indicating the hold. A burly seaman followed them with her trunk. He looked like nothing so much as a St. Bernard, begging for attention with tongue lolling. Again Alex was obliged to stifle a giggle.

"Put it down there, Styles," said Hornblower, a note of exasperation in his voice. Human then, this lieutenant.

Styles edged out of the room, unable to tear his eyes from Alex. He looked as if he hadn't seen a woman in half a year.
The cabin was small, with a window, but obviously great care had been taken to put it to rights. It was clean and hardly smelled at all.
Hornblower was standing by the door, his hands clasped behind his back.
"Thank you, Mr. Hornblower," Alex said. "I know this must have been your cabin."

"Yes, well, ma'am, it's no more than you deserve. I must apologize, for we have not even a steward to assist you. . . ."

"I can manage perfectly, Mr. Hornblower. Thank you. I shall be fine."

Yet he lingered. He began to speak, closed his mouth, shut it, and opened it again. "If I can be of any assistance to you, ma'am . . . ?"

Alexandra followed his gaze. "Oh­yes­" no longer able to squelch the quiver­"I­I believe I am able to, er, empty that myself, sir."

A slight blush tinged his lean cheeks as he beat a hasty retreat to the door. Alexandra gave way to a fit of laughter on her hammock.

 

 

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Chapter Two

Alex had been prepared to be bored at sea for heaven only knew how many weeks, but she had not foreseen this first miserable, dark day. Her trunk was as unpacked as it could be, the cabin arranged, her cot fitted. The door could have been locked if she had wished it. She did not wish it now. All afternoon the clunk and step of feet above told her the men were preparing for the voyage. She felt stifled. What in the world was she really to do? Her two new novels would not last very long. Perhaps Hornblower had some interesting ones. That is, if she were able to read. The window yielded no light on this dreary day, and candlelight was so poor for reading. And her stomach felt . . . strange. She hadn't been prone to seasickness ever before, though.

She noticed a bucket in the far corner of the room. That would do nicely should the occasion merit. Either Mr. Hornblower had been full of foresight or her suffered seasickness himself.

Alex contented herself with checking her pistols to make sure the power was still dry after the morning's rain. Yes, passable, and ready at a moment's notice. She slid them quickly into her petticoat as a knock sounded at the door.

"Come," she said brightly, hoping she did not sound as eager for diversion as she was.

Mr. Hornblower slipped inside the door.

"Madam, I've come to ask if you would do me the honor of dining with me tonight." His gallantry was a little self-mocking.
"I'd be delighted," she smiled. "Thank you."

Whether he was relieved or terrified Alex could not discern at first, for he only nodded in acknowledgment, accompanied by a little awkward bow. A slight gulp gave his nervousness away as he said, "I shall be look forward to it."

When he was gone she stepped over to her trunk. By the time she had changed into a more suitable dress for dinner and rebrushed her hair and put it up, she began to wonder if her gown (Parisian, in spite of the troubles there) were a bit daring to wear when mingling with sailors. It would certainly be all the crack in Town, but here . . . ? But, as she contemplated changing while she powdered her nose, a knock sounded at the door.

At her answer, a midshipman opened the door and said in an overloud voice, "Captain requests your presence, ma'am, if you are ready." This little fellow could not have been more than fifteen, his freckles standing out all over his pale nose. He did not look at any part of her, but focused on a point behind her left ear. A devotee of Hornblower, no doubt.

"Of course, Mr. . . . ?"

"Tottam, ma'am."

"Would you escort me, sir?"

"Yes, ma'am." His face relaxed a little into a smile as he offered her his arm.

In the passage they met Kennedy, whose eyes instantly sparkled mischievously at her. He had noticed. "Enjoy your evening, Miss Wingate," he said. She could hear him chuckling as he passed down the hall.

Mr. Tottam's face had turned entirely impassive at this exchange. Definitely a Hornblower disciple, that one.

Alex was destined to be disappointed in the captain's reaction. Though his eyes widened considerably at the sight of her, he did not appear unduly flustered. He merely offered her the chair opposite himself. She wished she had brought a fan with which to rap him smartly on the knuckles.

Alex had meant him to bear the burden of the evening's conversation, but as he self-consciously helped her to salted pork and biscuit, she relented a little.

"I'm always surprised how big and burly you sailors seem to stay living on . . . this," she remarked with a smile.

"Well, ma'am, we don't always stay burly. I've seen more than one man die from disease brought on by poor food." His serious eyes did not leave her face. That in itself impressed her enough to relent further.
"Did you know them well?"

His eyes dropped to his plate. "Yes, one or two."

Alex did not press him. "Tell me about your men, sir. Shall we start with, say, Mr. Tottam?"

At this topic he brightened more than she would have expected of such a melancholy boy.

"Mr. Tottam has been at sea for three years now, having served on the Tabitha previous to the Indy. He shall be a fine officer."

"What makes you say so?" she asked, watching him add a few drops to his glass of wine.

"Why, he is fair, ma'am, with a fine sense of responsibility. He does not lose his head in battle, either."

"Now tell me about Mr. Kennedy. How long have you known him?"

"I first met him when I came aboard the Justinian. He had already been at sea for several years. Since he was fourteen, I believe."
"Is he so much older than you?"

"No, ma'am, we are about the same age."

"And great friends?"

The dark eyes dropped once again. "Yes, ma'am, the best I have."

Alex was puzzled by his solemnity. Did he not trust Kennedy? Was it deep emotion? She let that comment drop and asked him to describe more of his men. Matthews, Styles, Oldroyd­these names Alex stored up in her memory. It would be a safeguard to know who to turn to should there be trouble.

"Captain, would it be permissible for me to come on deck later? I should love to get some fresh air­and perhaps see how a ship is truly run."

"Yes, if the weather is fair, but I do not think it will be."

"Can you read the weather so well?" she asked archly.
"Yes, ma'am," he replied simply, looking at her in some surprise.

Alex found herself wishing crossly that the sun might burn him pink come the morrow.

 

Alexandra woke to a tossing ship, the wind howling. Her stomach felt decidedly odd. She could see nothing out her window.
As she tried to stand, her stomach lurched rather alarmingly, but she swallowed deliberately and began to dress.

She wondered if a cup of coffee might be available. She poked her head out of her door.

Mr. Hornblower was at the far end of the passage, but at the sound of the door, turned back to her. Alex glowered at him. He had no right to be correct about the weather, and he had the temerity to stand there calmly as she clutched the doorway to keep her footing.

"May I assist you, Miss Wingate?" Well, at least there was no gloating in his voice.

Alex thought rather petulantly that although the nose was straight, it was far too big. A really handsome man would have nicely proportioned face like Mr. Kennedy's. Yes, a nice, pleasant English face with a nose that nearly turned up at the end. Suddenly Alex envisioned Mr. Hornblower with a pert nose. She felt better immediately.

"Mr. Hornblower, I see I shall have to stay in my cabin today, so I wonder if I might be permitted to look at some of your maps you've left there. And perhaps, sir, you have a book or two I might read?" This last was said rather defiantly, as she was forced to swallow­hard­once again.

"Certainly, madam, I shall bring them by a little later."

"Thank you," Alex said with dignity, closing the door in haste. The bucket was at hand.

And Alex remembered miserably that she had forgotten to ask about the coffee.

 

 

 

 

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Chapter Three

By afternoon the storm had abated, leaving Alex weak but determined to leave her bed. She sat down at the table with determination and unrolled one of the maps. She was particularly interested in the coastline. . . .

Kennedy found her three hours later, still studying. "The captain sends his compliments, and these books, and requests you to dine with us tonight, Miss Wingate."

She looked up, trying to focus her eyes. "Lovely, Mr. Kennedy."

"What are you looking at, ma'am?" Kennedy asked curiously. "If I may be so bold," he added hastily.

"Maps," Alex said lightly, daring him to challenge her.

But Kennedy was made of stern stuff. "Begging your pardon, ma'am, it's just that ladies don't often . . ."

". . . know anything about geography?"

Kennedy knew a storm brewing when he saw one. "Show an interest in geography, Miss Wingate. It's­it's highly commendable."

That drew a laugh from Alex. "Very well. You'll come fetch me when it's time?"

"Aye, ma'am."

Alex glanced at the pile of books Kennedy had laid on the table. Clark's Complete Book of Seamanship, The Odyssey, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (all of it) and [i/]Don Quixote­in Spanish! Alex was amused. Was his library in such short supply? Or had he sent her his favorites?

 

 

 

Kennedy has been busy, Alex thought, when he came to her door again. A slightly rakish air clung to him, as if he had been drinking. He gave her an exaggeratedly gallant bow. "Madam, we dine with the captain tonight!"

Alex looked at him sharply. Was this tension between him and Hornblower? She couldn't decide by the time they reached his quarters.

Somehow Hornblower looked older to her tonight­taller, more aloof, grimmer. "Miss Wingate," he said, almost sternly, seating her. She wondered what burden he was wrestling with.

"Are we meeting our schedule, captain?" Alex asked him. "Do you think we shall make it to England within a month?"

"That is the plan, madam. It depends on the weather, of course, and how much trouble we have. We have so few men, you see."

"Horatio doesn't need a lot of men, Miss Wingate," Kennedy said merrily. "One time he outwitted a French supply ship captain and kept his crew of twelve at bay in a boat with only four men and his wits! When he was just a midshipman with only two months at sea!"
Alex eyed Mr. Hornblower.

"It wasn't that simple, ma'am. Mr. Kennedy wasn't there." The last sentence was given special emphasis, but it did not deter Kennedy.

"Aye, and then there was the time he had only a third of a crew on a French frigate they'd taken, and he came back and blew three French corvettes to bits and saved the Indy."

The obvious response hung in the air, but Hornblower did not utter it. His eyes locked with Kennedy's, Kennedy's slightly pleading, Hornblower's unreadable at first, then gentle, and a little sad.

Alex had not realized she was holding her breath. She exhaled now, slowly. What was going on here?

"You must not let Mr. Kennedy deceive you, ma'am. We have been through many, ah, adventures together, and he has saved my life on several occasions." He glanced at Kennedy.

Alex took the opportunity to change the subject. "Sir, you've given me your cabin, and you've got Mr. Kennedy's­but where does Mr. Kennedy sleep?"

"We share this room, madam."

"Of course, Horatio snores like the devil himself, Miss Wingate. Perhaps you'd let me bunk with you?"

Hornblower's jaw nearly collided with his plate.

"Why, certainly, Mr. Kennedy, but I must warn you that I sleep with my pistols, and they have hair triggers which might go off at the slightest jostling," Alex explained.

Then Mr. Kennedy gave Alex one of the most endearingly wicked smiles she had been blessed in her lifetime to see. "Oh, ma'am, I assure you, I should not jostle you!"

This was going too far for Mr. Hornblower. "Archie!" he hissed, half embarrassed and half angry.
Kennedy did not look abashed, his eyes dancing and lips twitching, but he resumed his meal in silence.

"I'm sure there was no offense meant and none taken, captain," said Alex softly.
The proud chin went up. "Nevertheless, madam," said Hornblower, "my officers are gentlemen."

"I think you will find that many unmarried ladies of quality are not as naive as they may appear, Mr. Hornblower," Alex said.

Instantly she knew she should not have said those words. Hornblower's face turned inscrutable. She hadn't meant to offend him by bring up the difference in their social statuses­she hadn't even known his class until now; she had only meant to point out that though there were strict rules laid down regarding single young ladies' actions, their minds were a different matter entirely.

"Sometimes even gentlemen may take liberties among friends, captain," Alex said, very gently.

Though time wore on, Hornblower continued to brood in silence, letting Kennedy guide the conversation. He made an effort to talk when Alex or Kennedy drew him in, his mind was clearly elsewhere.

Alexandra noticed that he would add a few drops of wine to his glass, then appear to drink some, then add more wine later, all the while never taking in more than a half-glass the whole meal. An interesting trick, that, one she practiced herself. As he picked up the bottle to pour her some, she said softly, "Only a drop or two, sir," and smiled. Hornblower looked startled, then glanced at her glass, his glass and back at her. A slow, shy smile spread across his face, starting with his eyes. "As you wish, ma'am."

Alex felt the ship lurch a little, and looked at the captain. Neither he nor Kennedy looked as if anything were amiss.

Something had happened indeed. She must be careful with those dark eyes.

"Shall we have a game of cards?" Horatio said with his first indication of good spirits that evening.

"Oh, no, Horatio. Count me out," said Kennedy. "I've lost half a week's pay to you already. Fleece Miss Wingate, if you please, and leave me alone."

"How rude!" Alex smiled.

"Yes, Mr. Kennedy, how rude!" Hornblower said, irritated. "I should not fleece Miss Wingate in any case."

"I daresay you would. Don't let him, ma'am. He's a hardened gambler."
Mr. Hornblower flushed.

Alex intervened. "I see I shall have to act as an older sister to you two. I warn you, I shan't be fleeced."
Both men were goggling at her.

"What have I said?" she demanded.
"We would never think of you as­as a sister, ma'am," Hornblower stammered.
"As an older sister," Kennedy interjected.

They both looked so absurdly youthful with their eyes bulging out of their heads that she had to laugh. "Well, I daresay I have a few years on both of you."

Hornblower shut his slack jaw with a snap.
Kennedy giggled. "How many years, ma'am?"

Hornblower was too shocked to remonstrate.

"I can see that you do mean to treat me as a sister, if you are to ask me impertinent questions like that. I think you ought to call me Alex."

The men exchanged glances. "Very well, ma'am­Alex," Hornblower said nobly. "Then you must call me Horatio and Kennedy, Archie."

"Very well. Now, are you going to deal, Horatio, or shall I?"

 

 

 

 

Kennedy had turned his chair backwards, leaning his chin on its back, watching the game progress. The sparkle in his eyes had dimmed, and he was very much flushed.

Mr. Hornblower, however, was as cool as a spring evening.

Alex felt tense in every muscle. She was no amateur at cards, and certainly no stranger to strategy, but she knew she had met her match. She noted the concentration on Hornblower's angular face, the working of his crooked upper lip (perhaps it was not so much crooked, she noted, as divoted just in the center), the abstraction on his brow, and she knew he was calculating, planning. Alex could give him a fair fight, but she could never beat him. When Alex gambled, she played her intuition. Hornblower merely calculated until he had no margin of error.
Alex had managed to win the second hand but lost the next two before Horatio abruptly stood up. "I thank you, ma'am­Alex­for your good company tonight," he said in his husky, shy voice.

Alex stood up, a little bewildered at his sudden dismissal. But as Horatio looked as if he had just swallowed something large, that wouldn't go down, she followed his guiding hand to the door. Only then did she remember Archie. Before she left, she had a glimpse of him sprawled out on his cot, legs akimbo, snoring gently.
"Please tell Archie I said goodnight," Alex said slyly.

"Aye, ma­Alex," Hornblower said, swallowing hard.
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Chapter Four

The following day was as fine as any she could have asked for. As first light crept into her cabin, Alex scrambled into her clothes and pelisse. She wanted to get some air and see the end of the sunrise.

A blast of fresh, salty air greeted her as she emerged from the hold. She drew a deep breath and noted that the few men on deck were staring at her. She had dressed in a hurry, so she took a quick glance down at herself­yes, all intact. The men hadn't seen her in two days, and must have been getting an eyeful.

"Miss Wingate!" said a breathless voice beside her.

She turned to smile on Midshipman Tottam. "Hello, sir. The captain said I might come up if the day were fair­I shan't be in the way, shall I?"

"Of course not!" Tottam offered her his arm and escorted her up onto the quarterdeck. The breeze was stronger there, and she turned her face into it.

So this was Hornblower's ship. Certainly not much to look at.

She heard his voice floating up from below: " . . . as many times as it takes, is that understood?"

A muffled, "Aye, sir," followed.

In a moment, Hornblower stalked up the stairway. Alex's breath caught as she saw his face. He looked, well, he looked absolutely beautiful, his eyes blazing, his face like a thundercloud in his magnificent blue cloak and bicorne.

"You are relieved, Mr. Tottam. Send Mr. Kennedy to me, if you please," he said in a voice devoid of emotion.

"Aye, sir," Tottam squeaked and scurried away.

Alex eyed Hornblower warily. She had not expected such a mood of him.

"Miss Wingate, you are well this morning." It was certainly not a question.

"Er, yes, captain. I am quite well, thank you."
He walked to the opposite railing and stood there, hands clasped behind his back.

Well, if that's the way he wants it, fine! thought Alex indignantly. He will have it!
Mr. Kennedy mounted the stairs, spied her and gave her a sunny smile. He looked not a whit worse for the wine he had taken in the night before.
"Good day­Alex," Archie grinned as he passed.

There was a close-headed discussion at the rail, and Horatio turned back again to the sea, while Archie marched briskly past, giving her a jaunty nod.

As least she was out of the cabin, Alex reasoned with herself. That was all what mattered, whether anyone deigned to speak with her or not. She spent the morning soaking in the sun, gazing out at the sparkling water, so calm this day. She watched the men below covertly, out of the corner of her eye. Hornblower was above and below decks, never still, a smile never lightening his face. Alex began to tire of standing, and the sun was growing warm. She met Archie in the passage.

"Hello, ma'am," Archie said. "I've been neglecting you shamefully, I know, but Horatio­"

"Yes, he seemed in a rather foul mood."

"The men are restless­bored already," Archie explained. "It makes them lax, and nothing makes Mr. Hornblower angrier. There will be drills this afternoon, I can tell you!"

"Drills?"

"Aye, running the guns out, loading, firing­and doing it in record time."

"Some excitement, then?"

"You might call it that," he smiled. "But it's odd you should use that word, 'foul.' I do not think there is anything foul about Horatio­not even his moods." The little smile that accompanied this admonishment robbed it of its bite, but Alex felt his meaning. He wasn't going to join her in criticizing Hornblower.

"I see," she said.

"Perhaps tomorrow I'll have time to conduct you about the ship," he said kindly.

"Very good of you, Archie."

All afternoon Alex stayed in her cabin, trying very hard not to be miffed. The guns boomed ceaselessly, it seemed. No dinner invitation tonight­the men would have been absolutely hoarse anyway. Perhaps Clarke's Seamanship would provide some unexpected amusement. . . .

 

 

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Chapter Five

The following morning Alex was wakened by the motion of the ship. She lay in her cot for several minutes trying to find a rhythm to the motion she could adjust to. After a while she grew used to the roll and toss. She swung her feet uncertainly to the floor and found she could stand.

As she dressed, shifting her footing, she heard an urgent knocking on the cabin door down the passage. An unfamiliar voice was heard requesting Hornblower, followed by several thumps, then footsteps toward the stairs.

Alex peeked out the window. It was overcast but did not appear to be too unpleasant. Perhaps, Alex thought optimistically, she might even be able to dispense with her irksome bonnet!

Strangely, this morning it was Matthews who brought her coffee and a biscuit. She liked the look of this graying, wiry sailor, but she did not encourage him to linger, merely giving him a smile and a thank-you. He knuckled his forehead and backed out of the room. The coffee was of course wretched, but the biscuit was well enough.

Alex dawdled around the cabin after breakfast for as long as she could bear, then ventured above. The midshipman whose voice she had heard earlier goggled at her, and she could not resist dropping him a little curtsy.

"Mr. Hill! See to those braces!" snapped Hornblower, turning away to hide the smile that turned up the ends of his wide mouth.

"Aye, aye, sir!" the midshipman shouted, stealing another glance at Alex as he went. A girl could rather conceited on this ship.

Hornblower was still fighting off a grin when she approached him.

"Good morning, sir."

"Good morning, ma'am. I trust you are enjoying your journey so far?"

"Enjoying? Not enjoying, precisely. I would say, rather, that between bouts of extreme boredom I am frightfully intrigued."

He smiled a little at that. She had not noticed before how mobile his face could be--when he was not consciously schooling his expression.

"I notice we've a little wind this morning. Is it giving you trouble, sir?"

"Not at all. She merely gets a bit frisky in the breeze." He squinted at the sails. What pride was in his voice­over a Spanish-built ship!

"Would I be underfoot if I stay here on the quarterdeck for a while, Mr. Hornblower?"
"Not at all, ma'am. I will tell you if it's not safe for you to be above."

Alex bristled. Oh, you will, will you? I suppose you think I would strain my intellect without your help. She lifted her eyebrow at him, but he did not appear to notice.

She moved away from him to stand at the rail and looked out at the water. Little uneven whitecaps were popping up. It was so peaceful for the moment, the slap of the waves on the hull and the gentle creaking of the wood. She shifted her hat a little to keep out the sun that had unfortunately showed itself. She was going to be brown as a nut when she got to England.

She watched the horizon­it was odd how the ocean always looked as if it were rising up to meet the sky. And what exactly was that blur on the horizon? Could it be a ship? She squinted into the sun. Yes, it shimmered­

"Sail ho!" shouted the seaman aloft.

Suddenly the languid ship seemed to leap to action. Hornblower was at her side with his eyeglass, shouting something incomprehensible at the crew. He glared furiously through the glass until Alex ventured, "What kind of ship, captain?"

"I cannot make out the flag," he said tersely. He scowled, but handed the glass to her.

She was surprised he had given it up, but she accepted it eagerly. She tried not to look too long before she handed it back. "French," she said softly.

"I believe you are correct, ma'am," he said, his eye in the glass again.

Alex bit back a tart reply.

"It's a 72," he murmured after a while. "Keep clear of her, Mr. Levy!" he shouted

"Aye, sir."

Yet it seemed to Alex that the ship grew larger.

Hornblower's relaxed pose seem to shiver, and in a moment he was pacing furiously. Then he caught himself and stopped again, clasping his hands behind his back. Then up came the glass.

Finally it seemed Hornblower could take it no more. "About ship!" he roared. "Hard a-lee! Take in that tops'l!"

Alex could see the ship looming larger, but she felt La Dora hesitate, then leap away as she tacked.
Another shout came from aloft. "Two sails!"

"Mr. Hill!" Hornblower bellowed. "All hands!" The midshipman echoed the order.
In a minute or two Kennedy scrambled onto the deck, still struggling into his coat. His eyes were bleary with sleep but he saluted Hornblower smartly.

"Mr. Kennedy, see to the riggings. I may need you to go aloft yourself."

"Aye, aye, sir," said Kennedy crisply.

Over the next several hours, Alex found herself holding her breath again and again. She did not know exactly what the strategy of the French ships was, but it appeared that they were trying to trap La Dora between them, boxing her in.

Hornblower was as cool as he was at a card game, though his brow wrinkled often and emotions passed quickly over his face.

They were always a step ahead of the French, or at least half a step. At the last possible moment, it seemed, Hornblower would give his order, and they would escape again.

Once Hornblower's eyes met hers, though he seemed to be looking beyond her. Alex realized, with awe, that in five years, perhaps less­when Hornblower had completely thrown off the boy­he would be her ideal, a man she could truly match, a man she could look up to and love.

Then it was back to tacking and wearing, jousting with the enemy for their lives. Once it seemed they were foundering and one of the French ships was bringing its guns to bear. But it was all part of Hornblower's plan, it seemed, and soon they had left the first ship behind­at least for the time being.

"The wind­it's freshening, sir!" cried Kennedy suddenly.

And indeed, a cool breeze had sprung up from the south. Instantly Hornblower took advantage of it, sails being unfured as Hornblower shouted orders that were echoed all around the ship.

It was less than half an hour later that Hornblower's tactics had maneuvered La Dora completely out of sight of the second ship. Kennedy approached Hornblower, beaming, while Hornblower grinned modestly, trying not to let the crew see, yet seeming to love the praise.

Alex was surprised to find her heart beating wildly as the two officers approached her. "That was very impressive, sir," she managed to say. Her thoughts were in a jumble, but she knew one thing: she was not easily impressed, but this strange man had done it. Sir Edward had not overestimated him.

"Thank you, ma'am," Hornblower said hastily, suddenly embarrassed.

"Now, I think, let us await some food!" Kennedy said.

Pleased, she took his arm as the three went below.
Though the first ship returned to the horizon at dusk, Hornblower shook it off again before nightfall, and it did not reappear.

That night Alex dreamed of Hornblower as a young god, commanding the wind and weather, contemptuous of such mere mortals as she.

_________________________

 

 

Chapter Six

Alex was up at dawn again, excitement filling her. She wanted to see more of this interesting Hornblower in action. Hastily priming her pistols, she stowed them in her petticoats.

The decks were already a beehive of activity. Men scuttled everywhere. Hornblower, Kennedy and Tottam were in a knot of conversation. She did not approach them but followed their gaze. She could barely make out the ghost of a topsail in the distance.

Mr. Tottam broke away and approached her, breathless. "It's a Spanish frigate, ma'am." Alex saw Hornblower studying it through his eyeglass. "And we'll never be able to outrun it ma'am. Not this time."

"A battle, Mr. Tottam?" she asked. If so, the risk of being taken prisoner was high.

"Aye, ma'am. Mr. Kennedy doesn't like it, but it looks like we'll have no choice. Don't you worry, ma'am," he said proudly. "Mr. Hornblower will bring us through."

"Indeed," she agreed, but she did not share the boy's optimism. How many of the men would be dead? How many could they spare so short of crew?

"Excuse me, ma'am. I must see to my men. Mr. Hornblower said if we were to see action, perhaps the cable tier . . ."

"Perhaps, Mr. Tottam." When he was gone, she edged closer to Hornblower and Kennedy. Hornblower was giving orders to try to shake off the Spanish ship, but the grimness in his face showed he did not think it would succeed.

Alex could make out the gun ports on the frigate now, and she could feel the excitement below decks.

Hornblower stood, feet apart, clasped behind his back, majestically calm.
Everything seemed to happen in slow motion then. Alex saw his mouth form words to Kennedy. Kennedy flinched but did not hesitate before he shouted the words: "Clear for action! Beat to quarters!"

The call echoed throughout the ship and the feverish activity increased­guns being run out, cannonballs hoisted . . .

It took only a look from Hornblower to recall Alex to her senses. She must not be standing about in fascinated horror. The closer the frigate got, the more she endangered herself. She picked up her skirts and ran down into the hold. She bolted the door to her room, then rummaged through her trunk. There she found a sheathed dagger. She hurriedly checked its edge, resheathed it and tucked it into her garter.

Disciplining her mind to think coolly, she picked the best vantage point from which to aim at the door. Yes, there by the trunk where the light did not reach her but illuminated the door. She drew out her pistols and took practice aim several times, deliberately.

Now, the waiting.

Suddenly she heard the sound of cannonfire, as if from far off. She felt the La Dora jolt from the impact. It had started.

La Dora leaped back as she fired broadside. This was nothing, nothing like the drills had been. It wasn't long until she could hear the screams of the wounded­whether British or Spanish, she couldn't tell. Had they been boarded?

Musketfire joined the fray. She heard voices in the hall, then shouting. Alex gripped her pistols. She was ready.

More gunfire now, and shouts. Some in Spanish.

Someone's throat had been slit in the passage­she could hear him dying. She did not allow her mind to wonder who.

" . . . capitan!" she caught outside her door. How kind it had been of Hornblower to give her the captain's cabin. Perhaps she should have skulked in the cable tier like a Frenchman.

The door shuddered at the pounding. More shouts, then a terrible blow to the door. Alex whispered a prayer. They were going to break it down.

It took only two more tries--and suddenly there was the splintering of wood as the bracing cracked and gave way.

Alex did not see faces--only targets. One shot, one man dead. A second shot, the second man dead on top of the first. The others fell back in confusion, which gave her time to collect the first Spaniard's pistol and the second's musket. This she checked with deliberation. Still unfired. She set the butt against her shoulder and took aim.

More confused shouting in the passage, then a scuffle and the sharp groan of a dying man. Into the room stumbled Kennedy and Hornblower, their swords glistening with fresh blood.

Alex saw the looks of astonishment on their faces for one brief instant before she fired. The Spaniard behind them fell dead.

"Very timely arrival, gentlemen," she said as coolly as she could.

Hornblower was the first to recover. "Mr. Kennedy, you stay with Miss Wingate until all is secure." He ran back into the fight, queue flying.

"Good God," Archie breathed.

"Yes, or else I would not be standing here," Alex said. "Get me my powder there beside you, if you please. I need to reload."

"Yes­yes, of course," Archie said, recovering himself, and reloading and repriming his own pistols, which he tucked into his belt. He was only moderately bespeckled with blood and did not appear to have any injuries. A light of awe had appeared in his eyes. "Miss Wingate," he said solemnly, "I humbly withdraw my request to bunk with your pistols."

This drew a smile from Alex. "Shall I be allowed to help secure the ship, do you think, Archie?"

"No, I don't think so, Alex," Archie said gravely. "We are going to need the Spaniards to help man the ship, and the fewer that know about you, the better."

"Am I to be a prisoner in my own cabin?" Alex gasped. "I won't be!"

"Well, the captain will decide that, Alex," said Archie reasonably. "But he won't let you secure the ship, in any case."

Alex bit back the sharp words that were forming. Archie was only following orders.

"It would help if you'd keep watch for me while I hoist these bodies over," Archie said. "I think I can just heave them through the window." So Alex stood watch as he disposed of the corpses.
No sooner had the last man gone over than Horatio appeared at the door. Alex kept her pistol trained on him a bit longer than was necessary, but he did not appear to notice.

"All is secure, Mr. Kennedy," he said. "I shall need you above. Good fighting this day. And you, Miss Wingate."

Alex stifled her irritation at being an obvious afterthought. "Sir, might I be of any help to you?"

Hornblower eyed her pistols. "Just what did you have in mind, Miss Wingate?"

"She could help with the wounded, Mr. Hornblower," Archie volunteered. "With no surgeon on board . . . but it will be gruesome work, Alex."

"I haven't any skill at extracting bullets, sir, or amputating limbs, but I daresay I can bandage as well as the next man," she said.

"Very well, ma'am. I've had the wounded moved to the gunroom, for sickbay's demolished. You may attend them there. Mr. Kennedy, come."
"Aye, aye, sir." He gave Alex a rueful grin as he followed Hornblower out.

Seething, Alex went in search of the wounded.

 

 

 

 

________________________

 

Chapter Seven

 

Alex braced herself for what she would find when she went to the gunroom. She had ridden through the aftermath of a battle once, in France, bodies and parts of bodies strewn across the fields, with the low groans of the dying echoing through an eerie stillness. It will be like that, she told herself.

It was worse. The stench was nearly overpowering. Blood and gore covered the men, who were piled together nearly atop one another. There was nothing to work with­no bandages, no water . . .

A hand touched her sleeve. "Captain's compliments, and I'm to assist you just at first, ma'am," said young Tottam, handing her a surgeon's apron and some bandages.

"Yes," Alex said gratefully. "Thank you, Mr. Tottam. I shall need some freshwater, laudanum, basilicum powder (if any is to be had), much more lint­and a great quantity of run."

"Aye, ma'am."

"Mr. Tottam!" Alex said sharply as he turned to go.

"Ma'am?"

"Hold still." Gently she wiped the blood from around his eye. A sluggishly bleeding cut was over his eyebrow. "Hold this bandage against it now while you go."

"Aye, aye, ma'am!" he said with enthusiasm, and hurried off.

Alex tied the apron around her in a businesslike way. Find out which ones are hurt worst, she told herself firmly.

That was not hard to do. A grizzled old man was lying stunned in a pool of his own blood, both his legs gone. No sound escaped him. He simply stared blankly at Alex as she wept over at him and passed on. Intestinal injuries, exploded splinter wounds­these she could do nothing for. She wished fervently for Tottam's return with the rum.

The old man died before he returned, and Alex pressed his eyes closed for him.

Tottam rushed to her side. "We shan't even be able to bury them all properly, ma'am," he whispered. "So many of us are dead, and now we need the Spaniards to work for us. That will be no easy task, ma'am, getting Spaniards to work. But Mr. Kennedy's giving 'em a tongue-lashing in their own language, ma'am, that it does me good to hear. Oh, and I've brought pails for you, ma'am."

"Good thinking, Mr. Tottam," Alex said. "Hand me those forceps, if you please. I'm going to extract this splinter."

"Are you, ma'am? You're a brick, ma'am, that's what. Mr. Kennedy, he knows Spanish because he's a lord's son and had tutors as a lad, but Mr. Hornblower, he knows it because he learned it from a Spanish don, a book and Mr. Kennedy in Spanish prison."

"Indeed, Mr. Tottam?" Alex was only half-listening. She'd have to unravel his babbling at some other time. Mr. Tottam wasn't helping her much, but she let his talk flow over her while she worked, picking out what interested her.

"Yes, ma'am, he and Mr. Kennedy and Matthews, Styles, Oldroyd, Picket, Forbes and Stiller were all in prison together­but Mr. Kennedy was there longer, because he'd been there and couldn't escape, until Mr. Hornblower came. Everyone says he tried to starve himself to death, but Mr. Hornblower wouldn't let him, see. They were friends, you know, ma'am, and Mr. Hornblower wanted him to be well enough to escape with all the men."

Alex could not bear to look in the eyes of these men, that questioning, bewildered look that asked if death were near. Yet she kept on blotting and bandaging, knowing that half of them would be dead in the morning.

"Well, they escaped, of course, ma'am, but Mr. Hornblower had pledged his word of honor and the men's that they would come back. And so they did."
"They went back to Spanish prison for no other reason than Mr. Hornblower's honor?" Alex was startled into replying.
"Of course, ma'am!" Tottam replied. "Mr. Kennedy, they say, was the first to volunteer."

"Hmmmm," Alex said. This fellow kept trying to grab her, fighting her. "Mr. Tottam, hold this man down, if you please. See if you can get this rum down his gullet."

Mr. Tottam cheerfully held the man and dumped the cupful in before he knew what was happening. "I daresay we shall have to come back from Romney when he's more calm."

"Yes, quite right," Alex agreed tiredly.
"And Captain Pellew­he's the captain of the Indy, you know, ma'am­Captain Pellew one night, he didn't like the look of the wind, and I was the junior officer of the watch, and so I had to . . ."

It was exhausting work, steeling herself for every cry of agony she induced, watching the water in the buckets turn red with blood. She was perhaps too liberal with the rum, but laudanum was too valuable to waste.

She became dimly aware of a ruckus above, and suddenly she heard Hornblower bellowing above. More shouting grew up, and then musketfire.
Alex unbent from her work and gasped. In the doorway was a man wearing a Spanish captain's uniform, followed by another officer and a dozen men. They advanced slowly, pistols threatening, until an unearthly silence crept over the hold. The men at work at the guns all around were still, crouched and ready to strike. Alex moved back a little, wondering if she could ease into the shadows. One hand crept slowly to her skirts, but she was kneeling on them and could not reach her pistol.

"What is this?" the captain said, his eyes alighting on Alex. "A little mouse among the rats?" He was advancing.

Alex eased into a crouch and touched the pistol butt. She grasped it and pulled, but it was still tangled in her petticoats. Her other hand dived for the second weapon.

Suddenly Mr. Tottam stood in front of her, blocking the Spaniard's way. "That is far enough, sir," he said in a strangely calm, adult voice.
Alex seized the chance to pull both pistols free, yet kept them hidden in her skirts.

The captain merely curled his lip and ran Tottam through with his sword.

Alex did not take her eyes from the captain--she did not want to see Tottam die. The Spanish men were spread out now, disarming the British sailors. There was no help to be had there.

The captain's eyes turned from Tottam to Alex, and she braced herself. "I cannot stand the stench of Spanish pigs," she said, and spat in his face. In that instant that he recoiled she was able to pull up her pistol, but then the Spaniard was at her, slapping her, tearing at her dress and pushing her against the bulkhead.

He could not feel the gun against his leg, she knew, but she could not shoot him there. He must be dead, for her own sake and Horatio's sake. The man had her arms pinned, but she managed, as he fought her skirts, to move it higher. And pulled the trigger.

Hot blood and she did not know what else splattered her before he fell.

The pistol had made enough report that all eyes were on her. She cocked the second pistol, aimed it at the second officer and pulled the trigger. Nothing.
A misfire! Then a second plan came to her, better than the first. The officer was standing alone. Out came the dagger, and it was at the officer's throat.

"Brindan las armas!" she shouted.

For a frozen moment the Spaniards stood silent. Alex gently, ever so gently, drew the blade along his neck. A trickled of blood oozed onto his collard. She felt him tremble, and knew he was wondering if he would live if he struck her.

"Su capitan es muerte," she whispered.

"Brindan las armas!" he gasped.

With a muffled cheer the Englishmen recovered their weapons.

Alex blinked. It was incredibly dark in the hold, and all she could see was Matthews­was it Matthews?­ hurrying toward her.

"I'll take care of this fellow for you, ma'am," he said briskly. "Perhaps you better sit down for a spell. You like quite done up."

Alex swallowed. She could still do that. Matthews' matter-of-factness was rather soothing. But she could not see, not beyond Matthews' face, and she felt cold, icy cold. Was she shot? No, she had not remembered a shot.
A blur, and then a shout. Archie swearing again, somewhere nearby.

The gaunt, intense face of Mr. Hornblower came into view. "Miss Wingate, are you hurt?"

She looked at him, puzzled. "I am well," she managed. "Only I think . . . I'm afraid­I very much fear that­" and she crumpled.

Hornblower swept her up instantly. "Carpenter! Styles! Come with me at once!" he shouted as he ran.

 

 

 

Archie was gripping Matthews' arm. "What happened?"

"Pluck to the backbone, sir, that's what she is. Never saw a woman like her. He was on her and she just pulled the trigger, sir, cool as you please, and then it was to slittin' that fellow's throat. . . ."

Archie clutched Matthews' shoulders. "Matthews! Did he­did he­?"

The grizzled man's face softened. "Now don't fret yourself, lad­sir. I don't know for certain, for I was bein' disarmed myself, sir. But I fancy not."

"But Matthews! Her gown, all torn and­and­" he broke off, shaking.

"Beggin' your pardon, sir," Matthews whispered, "but you ought to pull yourself together. They need you. The captain needs you."

"Yes," said Archie. "Yes," he added, more strongly. He picked up his sword and sheathed it. "You there­Perkins, Overlin. Get these men in irons. There will be no second chances for these!"

 

 

_____________________________

 

Chapter Eight

 

When Alex woke she was on her cot in her cabin. It was dark, and her head was splitting. There was a pounding around her door. She could still hear the moans of the injured men. She should get up and help. . . . She struggled to sit upright, but her head swam and the room blurred. With a groan she lay down again.

 

 

It was a lovely smell . . . soft . . . someone's gentle hand was bathing her forehead with a handkerchief scented with lavender water.

Alex opened her eyes and looked into the lovely blue eyes of Archie Kennedy. One of those was swollen and beginning to blacken, and he had two ugly cuts across his left cheekbone that were already scabbing over.

"Hello, Alex," he said softly.

She opened her mouth but did not seem to be able to make her voice work.

"I took the liberty," he rushed on, "of making use of your lavender water, ma'am, as it was sitting out."

She nodded and tried to smile. She worked her tongue. "Water," she croaked.

Archie had a glass waiting. "You wouldn't let me give it to you earlier, ma'am." A weak little twinkle appeared in his eyes. "You say some very ungenteel things when you're unconscious, Alex."
She drank deeply and sighed, sinking back down into her cot. She noticed she was quite comfortable said dryly, "I perceive you took the liberty of loosing my stays as well."

Archie swallowed, and his eyes lowered. "No, ma'am. I believe that was the Spaniard's doing." His hand found hers and clasped it.

Alex was startled­the boy was positively shaking! She searched his face, which was as white as a ghost's. With an effort he met her eyes, his eyelids fluttering nervously.

What Alex saw there made her turn cold all over again. What was in that jumble of emotions warring there? Fear? Anger? Shame? Despair?

"Did he­?" Archie whispered.

Merciful God in heaven, Alex realized with a shock, Archie has been . . . "No, he did not . . . get that far," she managed. She was hearing Horatio's voice in her mind: "He had already been at sea for several years. Since he was fourteen, I believe." Archie was very handsome. She could picture him at fourteen­he must have been a small, extraordinarily pretty little boy. Perhaps too pretty for some sailor to resist . . .

"Archie­"

He held the bucket manfully as she retched and retched and retched again, until she fell back against the pillow again, spent.

"Archie­"

"We've fixed up your door, ma'am," Archie went on cheerfully. The stricken look was gone, and only the shadow of it haunted those lovely eyes. Obviously he was not going to confide in her. "And I took yet another liberty . . ."

Alex looked a question at him, and he nodded, smirking, at her bosom. Blood smears outlined where the surgeon's apron had been, but there, tucked into the gaping tear the Spaniard had made in her bodice, was Archie Kennedy's handkerchief.

"I suppose you want this back, Mr. Kennedy."

"Of course." The eyes sparkled mischievously. "But only when you are quite finished with it, madam."

She smiled tiredly at him. She was growing very fond of this child. Would he ever let her help him?

 

 

 

When Archie left her, Alex fell asleep again, her mind stirring uneasily in dreams of blood and pistols.

A tap on her door brought her to a half-waking state. "Might I come in, ma'am?" Horatio's husky voice, hoarse from his day of shouting.

Alex murmured something which he took as a yes.

He stood at her side, fingering his bicorne, looking at her anxiously. "Are you well, ma'am?"

Why did he persist in asking her that? Alex willed herself awake. "Yes, just a bit bruised, I think. I shall be quite all right." She summoned up a smile. She knew it was weak, but it was the best she could manage.

"If you are feeling up to it, ma'am, I'd very much enjoy your presence at dinner tonight."

"Lovely," Alex replied, though her stomach rolled at the thought of salt beef.

Hornblower shifted his feet and then stood very straight, as if standing at attention, focusing on the ceiling. "I must apologize to you, madam, for my earlier lack of­er­attention when you were above deck. I should have been more attentive. And, ma'am, I should have been looking out for your welfare. I­I cannot tell you how it grieves me that such a thing as happened to you today should have occurred aboard my ship."

"Mr. Hornblower," Alex said gently, "this is a war, you know. I think if I have no hard feelings about it, you need not."

"That is very generous of you, madam," he said, plainly not believing a word she said.
Alex was too tired to remonstrate, so she merely smiled. "I shall dine with you this evening, sir, and you may be as chivalrous as you please, to make up for lost time."

This sally drew a wry smile. "Thank you, ma'am."
Drat the boy. He was going to make the evening miserable.

When the time came for dinner, Alex dressed with care. She pinned her hair up loosely and did not neglect her perfume and powder, even clasping her pearls around her neck. She was not going to let Hornblower think about blood and gore all night.

The cook was in the room with Horatio when she arrived, arranging the tablecloth and laying out the crockery. Horatio was twitching the ruffles out of his cuffs and trying not to appear to be doing it.

When the cook had departed and Horatio finally sat down across from her, Alex took stock of him. Once again, dark circles rimmed his eyes, his skin seemed drawn over his cheekbones till it was taut, giving him an emaciated look. He was pale enough that his nose and eyelids seemed pink.

"It has been a black day, sir," she said.

"Black indeed." His voice had still not entirely returned.

They ate in silence for a while, Alex concentrating on steeling her stomach. It was a tenet of hers to eat when offered the opportunity­no matter what one's stomach argued.

She eyed her dining partner. Horatio's throat worked, and it was not only to swallow. His jaw clenched and unclenched, and not to chew. Alex tried to help.

"Captain, did you not tell me Mr. Tottam had a mother? If so, I would very much like to write her. If it had not been for that young man, I might not be alive." Would he recognize the badge of hope she offered?

"Yes, ma'am. An excellent idea."

"I believe Mr. Tottam admired you very much," she said. "He could not stop talking about you."

"Indeed, ma'am? That is gratifying, but he was very young."
"He was determined," she went on inexorably, "to imitate you in every way, sir." She watched his face, and added the clincher. "I believe that is why he gave his life for me­as you would have, Horatio."

Horatio abruptly stood up, sending his chair sprawling. "Madam, you are too­too generous. I­I must thank you for saving my ship and the lives of my men. We owe you a great debt."
Alex stood as well and walked before him. "Horatio," she said, "we shall not talk of debts, you and I."

She had meant only to kiss that sensitive upper lip at first, and then allow him to kiss her back until he thought it was all his own idea.
Oh, how wrong she was.

She had not expected the smell of him, of wet wool and soap, to be so heady. She had not expected his slender body to be so sturdy. She had not expected his long, calloused fingers to be so gentle on her face­she had not expected herself to be so eager to be comforted.

She had not expected this­this overpowering wave of emotion, undermining her plans, making her so desperate to pour herself into him, everything that she was, and yet to immerse herself in all that he was­his nobility, his moodiness, his self-control, his humility, his brilliance.

She had not expected to lose control of the situation like this, and she had not expected that she wouldn't care when it was gone.
But she was not surprised when he released her, and pulled himself away. He stared at her, his deep, beautiful eyes dark with emotion.

Alex was shaken. The weakness she had despised in her sex, that foolish penchant of her gender to throw all commonsense to the wind to follow after a mere man­now she understood it, and she felt a deep compassion for the women she had scorned. She felt a strange kinship with them now.

". . . must apologize, Miss Wingate, I­I­"

"Indeed you must not, Mr. Hornblower, since it was I who kissed you."
Think! she ordered her mind, but her sluggish will would not respond. And then the fear crept in, leaving her chilled and numb. She was not just obsessed with this boy-god­she had actually fallen in love with him. She must force herself to realize the position this put her in­a position of weakness. Think of the control he could exercise over her, if he wished, if he knew . . .

"Madam," he was saying in his husky voice, "I must ask you to do me the honor­"

Suddenly Alex wasn't cold anymore. She was furious.

"Don't you dare to ask me that idiotic question!" she shrieked. She snapped her fingers beneath his nose. "That for your precious honor, Captain Hornblower." He looked shocked and hurt and bewildered, but she could not stop now. "Do you not see? You will be a great, great man someday, and you must not, must not, I tell you, marry just anyone. Don't you understand, Horatio?" She was clinging to his lapels like any common wench, but she could not stop herself. "You will be a great man­it's plain to anyone who knows you. You must marry a woman, Horatio, who is great too. When you marry, it must be someone who will help you and guide you and promote you, who will support and counsel you and­and give herself for you! Can you not understand? Horatio, there will be women who see your honor and your greatness, and they will try to trap you, yes, by your own honor. Women smarter and prettier, younger and older than I, schemers and­and manipulators, clever and helpless and innocent­you must be very careful, Horatio, for your own sake. You must take that brilliance you have, Horatio, that allows you to calculate and plan and plot a course or take action­you must take that instinct and put it to use­you must use it to temper your honor, to give it reason and insight. Harden your heart, Horatio, as best you can."

Alex stepped back, her eyes pleading with him to try to comprehend.

He could only stare back at her, his lips parted, as if he meant to speak. Finally he did. "Alexandra, why­"

"I'm no fit bride for you, Horatio. Do not mention it ever again." She knew that he was confused­after all, in her world, a kiss was not a light thing but was as good as the banns. But she was going to act as if it had never happened.

She suddenly felt the tears that had been coursing down her cheeks and wiped them impatiently. She was tired and sad and angry, and she knew that she was only angry to keep herself from despair.

"I must go," she said. How alone she felt, when he was willing and able to comfort! Don't think of that, she told herself. She brushed past him into the passage.

She fumbled fruitlessly with the latch and laid her forehead against the door, giving way to the emotion forcing it way out of her.

"Alex?" It was Archie, returning from watch. "Alex, what­? Horatio?" In that one word his voice ran the gamut from questioning to incredulity to outright anger.

"Don't be an ass, Archie." Her humiliation made her tongue acid. "He isn't capable of that."

Archie opened the door for her, but she slammed it in his face and threw herself onto her cot.

 

 

________________________

Chapter Nine

 

Archie cautiously entered his cabin, not sure what he would find. He knew Horatio would want solitude, whatever had happened, but Archie needed his bed. When he was asleep Horatio could have all the solitude he could wish for.

But Horatio was neither in a mood of morbid self-condemnation or injured bewilderment as Archie had expected. He was merely pensive, though worry and self-doubt were there too.

"I met Alex in the hall," said Archie conversationally, struggling out of his coat. "Crying her eyes out," he added.

Horatio only kept pacing.

"Fury of a woman scorned, perhaps?" he asked, eyeing his friend as he pulled off his boots and untied his hair.

"Nothing like that," Horatio said.

Archie threw his neckcloth on the deck next to his boots. He was too tired to undress any more, and too tired to pry Horatio out of his shell. He fell asleep to the thump of Horatio's heels across the floor, pacing.

 

 

 

Alexandra woke to a scream somewhere close. In an instant she shrugged on her dressing gown, snatched her pistols and eased out her door. It was too dark to see much as she crept down the passage, but she did not want to draw a spotlight to herself with a candle.

She tried the latch of the door to Kennedy and Hornblower's cabin. It was unlocked.

A lantern was burning inside, and Horatio was bending over Archie­Horatio his nightshirt unbottoned to his ribs and his hair flowing loose around his shoulders. Alex schooled her thoughts with an effort.

"Archie!" Horatio was saying sotto voce.

"What's wrong?" Alex whispered.

Horatio did not seem surprised that she was there. "He's­he's dreaming, I think."

Alex saw Archie sit straight up, his eyes wide and startled, staring out in front of him. "No, no!" he gasped. "No­not again­Simpson!"
The voice was terrifying­not Archie's natural voice, but the high, frightened voice of a child.

"Wake up, Archie!" Horatio urged, shaking his friend.

Archie cowered back into his hammock. "No, I won't! I won't!"

"Simpson is dead, Archie," Horatio said sternly, in his captain's voice. "Captain Pellew shot him, remember? I told you. Wake up now. You must wake up."

"Dead?" the voice was still unnatural.
"Yes, it's all right. Wake up now."

The boyish face relaxed and his body slumped back into the cot.

"It's all right, Archie. Wake up."

Again the voice came, this time Archie's own, drowsy and peevish. "What the devil are you doing, Horatio?"

"Just­just waking you up, Archie."

Alex faded away from the lantern. Archie would not want her here.

"I didn't­it wasn't a fit, was it, Horatio?"

"No, I don't think so. Just a nightmare."

"Good," said Archie sleepily. "I hope I won't remember it. They're still bad, the nightmares."

Horatio nodded, licked his lips, and nodded again. "Well. Just get your rest, Archie, and I'll wake you if you have any more."

"All right, Horatio," Archie said blissfully, already mostly asleep again.

Horatio caught Alex's eye as she backed out of the room. Neither of them spoke.

Back in her cabin, Alex cried herself to sleep for the second time that night. This time she added the wounds of Archie's soul to her own list of sorrows.

 

 

 

_________________________

Chapter Ten

 

Alex had formulated a plan. Her first act upon coming above was to confront Hornblower. She found him on the quarterdeck, serenely surveying the activities of the crew.

"Captain," she said in her most unassuming manner, "might I be permitted to tend the wounded again today?"

His dark eyes met hers squarely as if nothing unusual had happened. Oh, she loved him when he looked like that, impassive and dutiful­but then, she was going to love him no matter what he looked like. She could admit that now.

"Ma'am, I fear that if you mingle too freely with the men . . ." his voice trailed off.

"But surely, sir, if I'm only with the wounded. . . . Perhaps the sick berth could be used? Is it too damaged to be repaired?"

"It is, and I can scarcely spare enough men to repair it quickly."

"Oh, but I could do that!" Alex said eagerly. "I could help repair the sickbay­I can use a hammer." Well, almost. Richard wouldn't agree, of course, but she had helped him build a little bridge over the stream at home­twenty years ago.

At that opportune moment Kennedy approached them. "Mr. Hornblower, sir, I think we ought to get the wounded out of the gunroom if we can. They'll surely be trampled if we're engaged again, sir."

Hornblower eyed Alex suspiciously, but she merely opened her eyes wide at him.

"Shall I put together a small detail to shore up the sick berth, sir?" asked Kennedy, a little bewildered at the byplay.

"Yes, Mr. Kennedy. Miss Wingate and I think that is an excellent idea." And he turned and strode away.

Alex merely gave him her best Gallic shrug in response to Archie's inquiring look.

Kennedy moved off to collect the workmen. Alex returned to tending the wounded men, which was somewhat easier this time with no blood spurting over her, hysterical screaming or smoke blinding her. Really all she could do was soothe them with soft words and a cool cloth to the head. What she could do she did, though it was hot, stinking, miserable work. By the afternoon she as desperate for some fresh air. She stood and let her cramped legs straighten themselves out before climbing the stairway to the deck.
As soon as she emerged, Archie was beside her, taking her arm and propelling her back to her cabin.

"What are you doing?" Alex demanded indignantly. There was some kind of commotion on the other side of the rail, down below, and the men seemed to be assembled to watch something.
"Er­nothing you would want to see, believe me, Miss Wingate," Arche grinned, as he bore her inexorably away.

It would have been beneath her dignity to dig in her heels and refuse to move, as he was a strong-looking young man who would no doubt move her bodily.

"Well, I won't peek, but I do insist upon knowing what it is I would not want to see."
"Hmmm," Kennedy stalled as they arrived in what Alex supposed was the wardroom, though it had no officers' quarters, where luncheon awaited. But Alex was not so easily distracted. "Archie . . ."

"Mr. Hornblower," Archie began, his devilish eyes alight, "has a rather odd habit, Miss Wingate, of being hosed off regularly."

"Hosed off?" Alex said blankly­then realization hit her. With a deft toss of her serviette, she was up and making for the door.

"No, no, no!" chortled Archie, who in spite of his laugher had still beat her to the door.

Alex gave in with an exaggerated sigh. "I don't suppose you have taken up this practice, Archie?"

"Alex," Archie grinned, "if I had, you would be the last person I would tell."

They ate their meal in perfect harmony.

Hornblower walked into the wardroom as Alex and Archie were rising to leave. His hair was a mass of chaotic, wet curls, but he looked cool and collected in his uniform, and he had a satisfied air about him.

Archie's mouth twitched as he tried not to smile.

"There was quite a show today, just now," Alex said. "Er­so I hear."

Hornblower's eyes went instinctively to Archie, but no help was to be found there. Archie's eyes were dancing with mockery.

Hornblower cleared his throat uncertainly, then stood stiffly to address Alex. "I hope, ma'am, that you did not­were not subject to­that Mr. Kennedy­"

Oh, he was so darling when he blushed. Someday he would not be capable of it anymore­such a sad thought. "Oh, no, sir, I haven't been subject to anything unpleasant," she said brightly as she brushed past him.

Outside, Archie burst into laughter. "Oh, Alex! You are beyond anything! He'll be unbearable for a se'ennight."

"I daresay it won't hurt him," she smiled.

 

 

 

 

By nightfall the sick berth was still not finished. How like Hornblower to be correct! But Alex was reluctant to leave the thirsty men­thirsty for more than mere water, their eyes, desperate for hope, taking in her every movement, every word.

She held the head of a young man named Samuel as he died, while he spoke to her of home and his new daughter there. They would never see each other. Alex felt the life go out of him, and she gently pressed his eyes closed and lowered him to the deck.

"Miss Wingate."

Alex nearly jumped as she realized Hornblower had been standing there for some time. She blinked back her unshed tears and stood to face him.
"Would you care to dine with me again tonight, ma'am?"

"Will­" this was going to hurt him­"Will Mr. Kennedy be there as well?"

"No, ma'am, he is on watch tonight."

"Perhaps," she said softly, "I had better come some other time."

Yes, there it was, that fixed look that bore witness to a hurt. Oh, she wanted to comfort him­but then, that was exactly the reason she ought not dine alone with him.

"Very well, ma'am," he said stiffly, and walked away. She had known he would misunderstand and blame it on himself. It would never cross his mind that he was the one who needed guarding.

After choking down a dry biscuit and some wine in her cabin, Alex returned below, carrying a lamp.

Mr. Hill was there, distributing water. He nearly dropped the pail as she approached.
"Hallo, ma'am. I­I was just going to give the men some water, ma'am."
"Well, carry on." She smiled reassuringly.

"And­and then I was going to play my fiddle for them, ma'am. They like it, you know."

"That would be lovely, Mr. Hill. Will you permit me to stay?"
"Of course, ma'am!" he said, shocked.

Mr. Hill was really an unattractive little fellow, with bad teeth and frizzy brown hair­but oh, as soon as he drew his bow across the strings Alex loved him. The boy had a genius with that fiddle. Alex itched to get up and dance, but that, of course, was out of the question. Mr. Hill had the men smiling through their misery.

But he soon turned to sad old ballads, and the men's eyes misted over, thinking of lost battles long ago, and loved ones at home. Alex sang as Mr. Hill played and nearly wept herself.

Above deck, the men at the rigging were mesmerized, frozen with the sweet sorrow of the fiddle and Alex's haunting voice. Kennedy was transfixed when Hornblower approached him from the passage.

"What is that infernal racket?" he fumed.

He felt the shocked eyes of Kennedy, Matthews, the helmsman­all in earshot­turn upon him. He knew his tone-deaf ear had betrayed him once again. Without another word he turned and stalked back to his cabin. He would just have to endure it.

________________

 

Chapter Eleven

 

By midmorning the next day the sick berth was nearly finished and the hammocks were strung. Alex commandeered some burly seamen to rig up the tackle to have the men moved. She was coordinating this effort, settling Romney more comfortably for his journey, when Hornblower came into the gunroom.

"Miss Wingate, what's all this?" he did not look pleased, his wide mouth pursed in disapproval and his eyes snapping.

"Why, I'm only having the men moved, sir­as you said I might."

"I did not give you permission to use my men in any way you please, ma'am. These men have work to do."

"I know­they're doing it," she retorted.

"Miss Wingate," he said, lowering his voice so the men would not hear, "in future, you will refrain from setting men to duties not their own. Any tasks you wish to be done must be addressed to me or Mr. Kennedy. Is that understood?

"Aye, aye, sir," she said, hoping all the sarcasm she felt had oozed into her voice. Blast him! She had only been doing what Kennedy had requested.

At least Hornblower was leaving so she could get on with her work. He did not direct the men to stop helping her, for which she was grudgingly grateful. In fact, the men seemed inclined to linger once the task was completed and the wounded settled. When Alex tactfully reminded the collective gawkers that they should return to their duties, they did so, but reluctantly.

Mr. Hill came again that evening, and the melancholy sounds drifted upward through the ship.

 

 

 

 

In a few days most of the men­who had not died­were able to return to duty or did not need constant care. Mr. Hill had assigned a seaman to attend them, though Alex still came occasionally. Now she spent her afternoons in the sun on deck and her evenings singing. Sometimes she would catch a glimpse of a crewman outside the berth, listening in the darkness. One night Archie came to join her. Alex had just begun "The Lily of the West" when she noticed Archie humming along. At her gesture he joined in, his clear baritone adding depth to the melody. It was pure pleasure to sing with him, his blue eyes far away, living the song.

But he left as soon as it was over, saying he needed to get some sleep. Alex sang on for as long as Mr. Hill played.

 

 

 

It had been a long, dull day. There was very little wind and absolutely nothing of interest was happening. Alex stood on the deck in her shadiest bonnet, wondering idly how long it would be before she could show her face in society once she got home. She was so brown now that no powder could ever disguise it.

Hornblower was at the other side of the rail, looking through his eyeglass, pacing and looking irritated. Alex decided not to move any closer to him.

"Beggin' your pardon, Miss Wingate." It was Matthews, knuckling his forehead, flanked by Oldroyd and Styles. "Me an' the lads, we just wanted you to know, ma'am, that we've sure enjoyed your songs. And we thought­mum, we thought you ought not to have to stand there in the sun like that­beggin' your pardon."

"Thank you, men," Alex smiled.

"So we've made you this parasol, mum," Matthews said, drawing forward the thing he had been hiding behind his back with one hand. "It's made from a sail, mum."

Alex opened it eagerly. "Oh, look how shady it is! I do thank you. Oh­and whose talented hand painted these lovely flowers? They're beautiful!"

Oldroyd's face was as red as a lobster and he stared at the deck.

"Mr. Oldroyd­was it you?"

Shuffling feet was her reply.

"Oh, thank you again, gentlemen. I am touched and honored."

The three men backed away, grinning, while Alex turned and twirled the parasol gaily over her head. A glance at Hornblower told her he had seen the transaction­and had not approved. Oh dear. But she would not be so brown now, if she were careful.

 

 

It was a pleasant evening, and Alex could not make herself go below to her cabin. Archie was not on watch anymore, so he joined her at the rail.

They were quiet, both gazing out at the starlit whitecaps for some time.
"Do you ever dream of having your own ship someday, Archie?" Alex asked eventually.
"No," Archie said bluntly.

Alex looked at him curiously, but he was still gazing at the sea.

"I mean, I hope, of course, but I don't bother to dream about that. I just don't see myself that far ahead. I hope to get my commission, if I pass the examination­if Captain Pellew recommends me for the examination­but, well, you can see what I have to compete with." It was said bitterly.

"Yes, he casts a large shadow," Alex said softly.

"I've tried to hate him, you know."

"Have you?"

"He wasn't much when he first came to sea, there aboard the Justinian. He was seasick for a month just anchored at Spithead. He was all hands and feet, clumsy and knowing nothing of seamanship. But he was different. And he was my friend. You don't know how much that meant to me then.
"He showed us all up at mathematics, of course­and­and that was when S-Simpson, that­" Archie broke off into a string of curses that startled even Alex­"he was the senior midshipman who made our lives hell, had us all cowed­Simpson turned on Horatio. Beat him to a pulp one day. But Horatio­Horatio didn't take it tamely. He stood up to him as we all had feared to do."

Archie paused, his throat working to swallow. Alex waited silently.

"Then the war started. We were transferred to the Indy under Captain Pellew. It was like heaven. And Horatio just bloomed. Everything he did was right­well, mostly right, anyway. Captain Pellew loved him. And I, I did nothing but fail. I ended up in French prison, Spanish prison­and in an oubliette for a month." Another pause. "I tried to stay sane by quoting the plays, the songs, the poems I'd memorized, going over and over them­but I was so thirsty, and the rats!" Archie covered his eyes his one hand for a moment, then went on.

"So I fell back on hate. I thought of all the things Horatio had that I didn't­all the brains, all the luck, all the innocence­and I hated him. When they pulled me out of that stinking hole, I had nothing left but hate, for I could not walk. I was half-mad with hate.

"And one day, on the edge of sanity, who should be ushered into my cell?"

"The one and only Horatio Hornblower," Alex supplied with a sympathetic smile.

"And you know, I tried to hate him, but I couldn't. The man I hated was wholly from my imagination. Horatio has his faults, God knows, but he cared for me. He's not the best nurse in the world, but he bullied me into eating and getting better. He's the sort of fellow who has prescribed a half a lime a day to his acting lieutenant so he won't get sick again." He grinned ruefully. "I suppose I shall have to eat one tonight under his watchful eye."

Alex smiled again. She watched the emotions play over his handsome face as he went on.

"I'm not really suited for the navy, you know. I ought to have been an orator or some such thing. But here I am." He was silent again. "But it's not an easy thing being the friend of the great Horatio Hornblower."

"Yes, I can see that. I don't know how you bear the way he froths inside, and then lashes out at the closest object."

Archie chuckled. "Horatio hasn't learned yet to laugh at himself. Sometimes he just needs someone to help." That twinkling look in his eye . . .

"What would he do without you, Archie?"

Archie looked back out over the waves and shrugged. "He'd still be Horatio, of course."

"What did he say to you, there in that prison, to make you want to get well?" Alex asked after a while.
Archie laughed shortly. "He said he needed me. He said he wouldn't survive without me."

Alex waited for his own words to sink in. "And do you think he made that up for your sake, Archie?"

She couldn't see his face, but she knew he was considering her words.

"Even great men are afraid sometimes, Archie," she whispered.
Archie did not reply, his face still averted as he watched the sea.

 

 

_________________________

 

Chapter Twelve

The calm of the previous night gave way to a howling tempest the next day.

Though she had been hale and hearty for weeks, Alex succumbed to miserable seasickness for most of the morning. She slept through luncheon, but felt better by afternoon. When Hornblower tapped at her door and invited her to dine with him and Mr. Hill in the wardroom, she accepted gladly.

In the half-light of the wardroom, Hornblower looked heavenly, the flickering candlelight playing on the angles of his face. His hair was untidy, as usual, and his long, graceful fingers toyed with his wineglass continually.

Conversation was not at all natural, though Alex tried valiantly. Mr. Hill was simply too tongue-tied in the presence of such lofty personages as Hornblower and Alex, and Hornblower was not in a conversational mood. Even when Alex suggested cards after dinner, he only smiled politely and refused, saying he had paperwork to do and no secretary to assist him.

Mr. Hill, apparently feeling that this was a hint, nobly volunteered to assist him, thereby denying Hornblower his excuse and annoying him considerably. Mr. Hill retired to the opposite corner with an inkwell.

So the game came about after all. Alex was ready for it, having schooled her memory and refreshed her knowledge of tactics. Alex won the first hand; Hornblower the second and third, but Alex won the last. She could not help feeling a little triumphant at his surprise. She only regretted she had only Mr. Hill, who was not paying much attention, as a witness.

Hornblower then called it a night as the ship rolled and rocked with the wind. No sooner had Mr. Hill surrendered his stack of papers and gone than he burst back into the room. "All hands! Mr. Hornblower, sir, Mr. Kennedy sends his compliments, and would you come above decks?"

Alex picked up her skirts and followed Hornblower into the wind and rain.

"We've sprung a leak below, sir!" Kennedy shouted over the din. "I've sent the men to pump, sir, and the carptenter's mate's at work. And I believe we're carrying too much sail."

"Mr. Hill!" Hornblower roared. "Get some Frenchmen to man that pump, and get the hands aft and attend the rigging. Mr. Kennedy, see to it!"
"Aye, sir!"

"Captain," Alex shouted through the torrent, "please, sir, let me help­somehow!"

"Miss Wingate, you must get below!"
"Sir, the ship's at stake!"
"Get below, dammit, and don't show your face here again until I d- well tell you to!"

Alex saw the desperation on his face and bit back the angry retort she had ready. She went to her cabin without further words. She toweled her hair dry but she could not lie down nor even sit, knowing the ship was in danger. She paced until she was too tired to stand, and even then she heard no sound of the officers returning to their berth. Finally she fell asleep to the howling of the wind.

When she awoke the wind had stopped, but she could feel that the sea was still sullen and choppy. She dressed slowly and decided to wander over to the wardroom to see if any cold food was forthcoming.

The room was empty­save Horatio, who was asleep at the table in his waistcoat, his cheek on pile of papers and his mouth slightly open. How gentle he looked lying there­nothing like a man who would swear at a woman for trying to help.

She was considering stealing a chance to touch those riotous curls when Archie came into the room, yawning. She put her finger to her lips.

Archie smiled. "I knew he'd never last, writing those blasted reports," he whispered.

"What happened last night? Was the leak repaired?"

"Yes, though it isn't strictly watertight. We found it in time."

"I wish I could have helped."

"There was nothing for you to do."

"Nothing for me to do, when you're short thirty men?"
"Nothing for a lady to do," Archie said, meeting her glare straight on. "You know how he feels about your mingling with the men, Alex."

"Yes, but this was an emergency!"

Archie smiled. "Alex, you'll never change him."

Alex was obliged to accept this statement tamely, for at that moment the cook's mate brought their breakfast, and Horatio woke up.

Oh, he looked so lovely those first seconds, bewildered and wearing ink stains on his whiskered cheek, his neckcloth rumpled.

"Breakfast, captain?" Archie asked cheerfully, sitting down across from him.

"Yes, thank you, Archie." His voice was still husky from sleep. His bleary eyes focused on Alex and he gave her a shy smile, as if he recalled nothing of his bad manners the night before.

This forgetfulness did not fail to irritate Alex. Nor did the way Archie calmly sat arranging the silverware for his friend, as if we were the steward rather than second in command, soothe her. Lovely or not, this man was arrogant, rude, overbearing, unkind, selfish­

"How is Simmons?" Hornblower asked Kennedy, his brow wrinkling in recollection.

"He's broken his leg," Archie replied. "Matthews was able to set it for him, and we rigged up a splint. He will not be able to work, Horatio."

"Is he in great pain, Archie?"

"Yes. I gave him some laudanum before I retired."

Alex bit her lip. Well, perhaps not as selfish as all that, but still arrogant . . .

After breakfast she hurried to the sick berth to see this Simmons. He was a large man, and the effect of the laudanum had clearly worn off. He was thrashing about in his hammock, groaning.

Alex filled a vial with several drops of laudanum and brought it to his bed. "Simmons," she said sternly, "I'm going to give you some more laudanum now to help you sleep. Do you understand?"

The thrashing stopped and the man nodded. But as soon as she reached to put the vial to his lips, his hand caught her arm. And tightened. His eyes were open, but the look he was giving Alex she could not read. Was it fear, or . . . ?

"Mr. Simmons!" she said sharply. She was no stranger to bending people to her will­even large men. Yet his grip tightened to the point of pain. She slipped the vial into her other hand. This was not going to be easy if he didn't want it.

And then he grabbed her other hand.

Alex was still not afraid, but she knew she was in danger. There were only a few other wounded men in this berth, and a broken leg was obviously no barrier for this man.

"Mr. Simmons, you shall take this laudanum," she said through gritted teeth.

"Indeed you will, Mr. Simmons," said Hornblower as he strode into the room. Faster than she could react, the laudanum was out of her grasp, and Hornblower was pinching Simmons' nose and tossing the contents down his throat. Simmons let Alex go in the fit of coughing that followed.

And then Hornblower was whisking her out of the sick bay by her elbow, up the stairway and into the passage that led to their cabins.

"Miss Wingate," Hornblower said, obviously trying to measure his tone, "you will not tend the sick anymore, is that clear?"

"You said I might­" she began indignantly.

"I did, but I've changed my mind."

"He would not have hurt me," she said defiantly.
"What would you have done had I not come in?" he demanded.

"I would have bitten his fingers off," she replied flippantly.

"Miss Wingate, these men­some of them were pressed directly from prison. Some of them have not seen a woman in nearly a year. You do not comprehend your effect on them."

She wanted to retort that she knew her effect on the particular one she happened to be talking to, but she was feeling too much like a chastised schoolgirl already. "So I am to do nothing, then? I am simply to­to languish here, unoccupied?"

"I am afraid so, ma'am, at least for now." There could have been sympathy in his tone, but she couldn't find it in his eyes, which were stern and hard.

"Very well, then," she said with the haughtiness of generations of aristocratic Wingates, brushing past him. What was it about the man that made her want to cry all over him?

She went into the wardroom and paced madly about, then stopped, then paced again. That man!

She nearly collided with Archie as he entered. She pounced, grasping his arm. "Oh, Archie! Please talk to me like a sensible man!"

"Very well, Alex," Archie said slowly, blinking at her and gently freeing his sleeve. Suddenly he grasped her hands, turning them over. "What happened to you?"

Alex looked down at her wrists and saw that bruises were already appear where the welts had been. She twisted herself free. "I­tried to get Simmons to take more laudanum."

"Good heavens, Alex, how did you do it? I had to sit on the man's chest!"
"I didn't have that option," she said dryly. "And I did not succeed. Mr. Hornblower did it for me."

"It wasn't he who gave you those bruises. Stay away from Simmons, Alex. And a fellow named Mortimer. Bad lot."

"Yes, the captain already informed me I am to give up the sick berth," Alex said bitterly.

"If he wants you to stay away, Alex, you can trust that it's for the best," he said softly. Such unfailing trust!

"So now I am to be completely idle," Alex sighed. "I suppose I should knot a fringe or do something useful like that."

"I know, Alex!" Archie's eyes were alight. "Shakespeare!"

"Shakespeare?"

"Yes, Alex, you can take my Shakespeare books, and we'll recite together later."

"Oh," said Alex doubtfully. "Which should we do first?"

"Hamlet!" He was so ridiculously enthusiastic that Alex had to laugh.

"All right, all right! But I must be Ophelia and Horatio."

"Done!" said Archie with a dazzling smile.

 

 

 

 

Though Alex promenaded on deck with her parasol in the afternoon, she spent the evening with Shakespeare­taking the occasional break to study Horatio's maps. The following afternoon she and Archie spend several pleasant hours in his cabin, laughing over Alex's horrific mistakes.
"Stop making me laugh!" Archie said severely. "This is a tragedy, Alex! Let's do my death scene."

"All right," Alex said, smothering a giggle. She held up admirably until she said with funereal solemnity, "Good night, sweet prince"­and she collapsed onto Hornblower's sea chest in chuckles.

"What is so funny, Alex?" Archie demanded, one eye open as he lay slain on the deck.

"Oh, I suddenly thought of Prinny, and I couldn't h-he-help my-s-self!" she moaned.

"You shall speak respectfully of the king's son before me, ma'am! I am the king's man, after all," Archie said in mock sternness.

"He's my prince too, but he's so­well, Archie, if you've seen him­oh, in twenty years his ways will tell, I assure you!"

"You know him, then?" Archie asked in some awe.
"I've met him on several occasions."

"Have you indeed?" Archie asked curiously.

"Yes, and he's so­sweet!" Alex gasped, and went off into another peal of laughter.

Archie chuckled at her helplessness, and was still chuckling when Horatio entered.

The astonishment on his face was so patent that Archie explained, "Hallo, Horatio. I'm dead, you see."

"And she's mad, I suppose?" he asked, gesturing at Alex, wiping her streaming eyes.

"No, she's merely happy," Archie grinned, getting to his feet. "But not because I'm dead."

"I hope you're not too dead for your watch."

"Oh, no, sir," Archie said, donning his hat. "I only hope it's calm tonight­dead calm."

Alex gave an unladylike snicker as he left. Recovering herself, she began to gather up the book and their few props.

"Ma'am," Horatio began.

"Yes?" Alex said. She was standing close to him and she let her eyes lock with his. Oh, she did enjoy playing with fire.

His expressive mouth worked a little before he spoke. "Again I must apologize for my behavior two days ago during the storm. I should not have spoken to you in such a way."

"No, Mr. Hornblower," she sighed. "But neither should I be such an infernal pest. I am very sorry, sir. I seem to be always in your way."

"Not at all, ma'am," he said politely. "We are simply not accustomed to having a lady as our guest, ma'am."

"I daresay you would not have as much trouble from any other lady," she said remorsefully. Then she realized that she had practically begged him to disagree, and went on, hurriedly, "Good night, sir."

"Miss Wingate."
Alex turned to face him again.

"Can you not stay and dine with me?" He looked so vulnerable, those dark eyes wide and appealing.
"No, sir, you know I cannot." She hurried to her cabin before she had time to change her mind.

 

 

 

________________________________

 

 

Chapter Thirteen

"You know what I think, Horatio?" Archie asked eagerly, springing onto his cot and facing his friend.

"No, what do you think, Archie?" Horatio said sarcastically, staring doggedly out the window.

"I think," Archie went on with unabated enthusiasm, "that she's one of our spies."

"Our spies?" Horatio was too surprised to be cold. It was what he had suspected but had thought ridiculous.

"Yes. Think of it. She comes here all unattended, no maid­which any lady of quality, which she obviously is, would have with her. She studies your maps till she's too tired to see straight. And Good G­you've seen her shoot. Not your ordinary woman. And, Horatio, she was born to command."
"Yes, thank you for that excellent observation, Mr. Kennedy!" Horatio snapped.

"So that's it," Archie said softly. "I knew it was jealousy, but I thought it was of me . . . and her. Now I see­it's just her."

Horatio turned on Archie, eyes blazing. "I hope you will apologize for that remark."

"No, I will not!" Archie shot back. "Not when every man jack aboard this ship­except, well, including Miss Wingate­knows there's no other person on this earth who can command like you! Why can't you get that through your thick skull?"

Horatio's jaw worked, shock stripping away his voice. Finally it returned. "Keep your voice down! She'll hear!" he hissed.

There was a pause.

"Do you think she'll be angry that I called her a man jack, Horatio?" the schoolboy grin returned.

Horatio met his eye, and could only smile as well. "Archie, I--I'm sorry. I haven't been myself."

"Yes, as grouchy as a bear with a sore head, Horatio. You ought to be getting more sleep."

"I know." He went to the window again. "It's just hard to believe­she a spy!"

"Yes. And one of the haut ton, I daresay. I doubt society would think much of her being with us alone! I hope she's not considered compromised," he added thoughtfully.
"I doubt society would think much of us in any case," Horatio said. He was thinking of some other actions they would not approve of.

"There'll be a ball for her when she gets back," Archie said dreamily. "Think of it if we were invited­ladies, dancing, all the food we can eat . . ."

Horatio's heart sank. Dancing? "I doubt very much we shall be invited," he said levelly.

"You don't know Alex very well if you think she's that snobbish."

Horatio was about to reply when a thought struck him. "I wonder what she knows. Does she bring information for the admiralty?"

"I don't want to know," Archie said firmly. "I've enough to worry about with half a crew and low on ammunition and probably rationing without burdening myself with dangerous information."

 

 

 

The next day Kennedy's words proved too true.

"I'm sorry, sir," said the cook's mate. "But that's all I've got."

Four of the freshwater casks had sprung leaks and drained half away. Rationing was inevitable now, unless . . . Feverishly Hornblower's brain went to work. To put the men through food rationing was bad enough, but water rationing was simply cruel for men who sweated in the sun all day. If he could find a little inlet, unpopulated, with a stream . . . and this time, without Bunting.

"Sir?"

"Yes, Parker, thank you. That will be all."

"Aye, sir."

 

 

 

"Please let me go, Mr. Hornblower," Alex begged. "I haven't set foot on land, as you know, in a month, and­and I miss it, sir."

"And you'd like to study the coast in person, Miss Wingate?"

Alex was surprised, but she did not betray it. "Yes, captain, I would."

"I shall need to consult with Mr. Kennedy," he said quietly. "He will be leading the landing party."

 

 

 

Alex sat primly in the bow of the boat, clutching the parasol the men had made for her in one hand, and the butt of her pistol, which was in the pocket of her pelisse, with the other. She was beginning to fear she would not need her parasol as a sun shield but rather an umbrella, for the sky was looking threatening. (She could figure that out without Mr. Hornblower!) She had thoroughly enjoying walking along the pebbly beach (accompanied by her pistol), looking into the inlets and vegetation. Now they were rowing back to the La Dora, kegs full of fresh water.

Suddenly Archie stood with his eyeglass fixed on the horizon.

He gasped an oath and whispered to himself, "Horatio . . ."
Alex bit her tongue to keep from asking. Archie blinked for a second or two, glanced back at his men and then shouted, "Turn back, men! Hard a-lee! "

And then Alex saw what Archie had seen­a tall frigate coming around the isthmus­straight for the La Dora. The boats would have been easy targets had the frigate seen them.

"Pull!" Archie shouted at the men at the oars, "Pull, you *^#%@!"

And Horatio was left there to defend himself, minus twenty men on a ship already running on a bare-bones crew.

They were pulling the boats ashore and laying what branches could be found over them when they heard the first cannonfire. The men stopped their work for a moment, uneasily glancing at Kennedy.

"Gentlemen," he said, "let us say a prayer for Mr. Hornblower and our shipmates."

 

 

 

 

The storm burst a quarter of an hour later. Back within the shelter of the trees, the men were still struggling to rig up a small shelter using the longboat sails.

Alex sat shivering in her pelisse, trying not to think of how silent the ships had become. She longed to reconnoiter along the beach with Archie's eyeglass, as she would if she were on her own, just to see how the La Dora was faring­if she were not already sunk.

Alex knew Kennedy was worried, but he had his men to think of, and at least that was a small blessing for him. Of course, if La Dora were captured. . . . She did not want to think about their fates if they had to trudge inland.

She felt Archie come beside her, silently handing her the eyeglass. "I expect a full report, Miss Wingate."

She was off in a second, carefully concealing the white of her dress under her sober pelisse. It was not likely anyone from the French ship would be looking her way, but there was no sense taking a chance.

If they could have seen her anyway . . . the sea was so gray and the sky so murky she could barely make out the outline of the two ships. Then, suddenly, La Dora fired again, broadside, into the frigate. The red explosion illuminated the figures on board. Yes, she could see one, his lieutenant's bicorne on, dancing from gun to gun as they fired. With only Mr. Hill to share the burden of giving orders, he would run himself ragged doing all that and planning his strategy too . . . even young gods were fallible.

Alex continued to watch, though she knew she should get back to Archie­he'd be worried. Just a few moments more . . . But the smoke from the guns blended with the fog, and soon she could see nothing, not even the glow of the guns firing.

She picked her way back down the slope to the sorry little dripping camp to be greeted by a pacing Archie. In spite of himself, he chuckled at the sight of Alex. "Miss Wingate, where have you been?" He offered her his kerchief.

She grinned through her mud. "Why, just to the bluff, sir," she said innocently, dabbing at her face. "I saw the Dora, intact, with Captain Hornblower on the deck commanding fire, but the fog overtook him."
Archie sighed. "I suppose there's nothing for it but to wait."

"I'm afraid so, Mr. Kennedy."

As the two shelters were appallingly small and the men were crowded into them, a murmur sprang up at her words. No one could hear firing anymore, and that had worried them.

"It will be light before we find out her fate," Kennedy said. "If this storm ends," he amended.

With no cards, no food and no room, there was nothing for the men to do but sleep. Veterans of innumerable battles, they did not intend to lose sleep over what they were powerless to change. They all gradually laid themselves out, shoulder to shoulder. Alex sat shivering in her pelisse, which was soaked through, wondering just how this sleeping together was going to work. She did not trust all these men, and it was going to be cold.

Archie was watching her as he settled down on a reasonably dry patch. "Miss Wingate," Archie called, pulling off his own cloak, "take this."

Alex saw her opportunity. This was no time to be missish. Shedding her pelisse (but retaining the pistols), she snatched the cloak, sank down beside Archie, and draped it over them both.
Archie was clearly astonished. "Miss Wingate­the men!" came his agonized whisper.
"If you think for one minute," she said tartly, "that I am going to cozy up to all these men, you are quite mistaken, sir! I shouldn't get a wink of sleep!"

She heard a smothered guffaw from Matthews at her back, but Archie did not respond. Well, he was certainly adept at flirting, but at following through he was a dismal failure.

She lowered her voice so only he could hear. "Don't worry, Archie. I shan't eat you up . . . yet." Even this sally drew no more than a gulp.

"For heaven's sake," she said crossly, under her breath, "relax! Haven't you ever held a woman before?"

As soon as the words left her lips, she could have bitten off her tongue. It was very possible that he hadn't, and even more likely that he was ashamed of it.

"How old are you, Archie?"

"Twenty-two," he said. He seemed to be having difficulty breathing and was as tense as a coiled spring.

"That's very young," she murmured, intending comfort, and fell asleep. It was a long time before Archie followed her example.

 

 

 

____________________________

 

Chapter Fourteen

 

Alex woke in the early hours of the morning as a seaman shook Kennedy awake. Though there was not much light, she could see Archie blinking sleepily at her.

"Archie," she whispered, "the eyeglass."

"You'll never be able to see anything, Alex." But he handed it to her anyway. She donned her muddy pelisse and scrambled toward the bluff. Breathless, she aimed the eyeglass at the sea. She could see nothing, as Archie had predicted. She tried not to think about Horatio.

The camp was stirring as she came back, the men bumping into each other in the half-light. "Mr. Kennedy!" she said as she caught sight of his hat. "Can you spare me same string and a sack?"

"A sack!" he exclaimed.

"Yes, a sack­and how long till we leave, if you please?"

"Not above half an hour from now. Didn't see anything, Alex?" Archie asked as he rooted through their supplies.

"No. Of course not. You were right, Archie."

Archie smiled sympathetically. Impulsively Alex kissed him on the cheek. "Thank you for being such a perfect gentleman, Archie." He blushed faintly, and she sighed as she walked away. She hoped Archie would one day be free of whatever demons held him, or it would be a crying shame for womankind.
As she disappeared into the trees, Archie turned back to his men. More than half were staring at him, some enviously, some slyly, some in stark surprise.

Archie cleared his throat. "Oldroyd, Matthews­get those kegs loaded up!"

 

 

 

 

Kennedy took the eyeglass to the bluff and waited there, eye trained on the sea. Every now and again he checked through his eyeglass until . . . until finally he saw the outline of two ships. No­it was only one ship, and­Archie rubbed his eyes­the burned hulk of another, smoking and smoldering, and sinking.
Archie froze. Then slowly he raised the glass once again. Which ship had survived? If Horatio had died, alone, when he could have been there­but no, there were the men. He had done the right thing for the men, had kept them safe. Even Horatio would have done that.
He stared blankly at the horizon for quite some time. Then, blinking rapidly, he focused on the blackened ship as it slowly keeled and went down into the roiling water.

Then, finally, the light eased onto the surviving ship's mast­illuminating the Union Jack.
Archie stood up and let out a whoop of glee. Good L­! He mustn't do that again. Who knew how far away a village was! He contented himself with running down to the camp as fast as his boots would carry him.

Eager eyes questioned him as he burst into camp. Only as the men sent up a muffled cheer did it occur to him that Horatio might not be alive. Not likely, of course­without Horatio La Dora would be the one at the bottom of the sea.

But there was his duty to do now.

The men were nearly finished loading up the boats when Alex emerged from the trees, her sack bulging, looking smug, But she ran to Archie, looking the question.

"I saw the Dora, but I couldn't see him," Archie said.

 

 

 

Archie insisted Alex be one of the last to reboard La Dora by dint of modesty. The deck was bare of Horatio, though there were many hands to help her as she scrambled up.

"Styles!" Archie pounced on the seaman eagerly. "Mr. Hornblower­how is Mr. Hornblower?"

"Oh, 'e's all right, sir. You shoulda seen 'im. 'E 'ad that Frog captain so 'e didn't know which end was up, sir. And then­then 'e sent us to board 'er, sir­with torches! It was the da­er--thing, beggin' your pardon, miss. We 'adn't enough men for the guns, sir, without you. And Mr. 'Ornblower 'imself was runnin' 'em out, sir. Finally things don't look good for us, sir, and Mr. 'Ornblower, 'e says we'll catch 'em off guard, sir, with a surprise attack. So what are we at but boardin' that Frog ship with torches! We 'ad a devil of a time keepin' 'em lit in that storm, sir, but you should've seen it! The ship went up in smoke, with the Frogs jumpin' overboard like­like frogs, sir!"

"I should have liked to have seen it," Kennedy said. "How are the French prisoners getting along with the Spanish?"

"Mr. 'Ornblower's got 'em locked up together, sir, when he can. Takes their mind off killin' us, sir, when they're thinkin' of killin' each other. But it's a shame about the prize money."
Kennedy only laughed and went in search of the captain. Alex wanted to follow him, but she knew she should not. Archie had to report.
"I've got something for the cook, Styles," she said. "Can you tell me where I could find him?"

" 'Ave you, miss?" Styles asked, interested. "Chickens?"

 

 

 

Alex was invited to dine with the officers that night. She had not seen Horatio since his overnight ordeal, and again she suffered a shock. The weight of command was not sitting easily on his brow. The dark circles under his eyes which had seemed ever-present were now larger and deeper. His eyes looked sad, so sad.

"What's this?" Archie said after tasting his stew.

Horatio tasted his. "It's not only beef," he commented, puzzled. "There's little bits of something else."

They both looked at Alex.

"What was in the sack, Alex?" Archie asked.

"What sack?" she said brightly.
"Alex, you are an amazing woman," Archie said, favoring her with a blinding smile. "You trapped us rabbits!"

"And a grouse," she said demurely.

"The men will be pleased," Horatio said. "Thank you, Miss Wingate."

 

 

 

_________________________

 

 

Chapter Fifteen

 

"Sir," Kennedy said, standing stiffly at attention in their cabin, "I must report that I have had to discipline Mortimer."

"Mortimer? Go on." Hornblower looked sharply at Kennedy.

"Aye, sir."

"And what was his offense, Mr. Kennedy?" Hornblower prodded.

Kennedy flushed. "He stepped beyond the line of respect due the commanding officer, sir."
Hornblower did not reply immediately, and Kennedy waited for him to speak.

"Just what did he do, Mr. Kennedy?"

Kennedy swallowed, blinking. "He spoke slightingly of you sir, and of me, and of Miss Wingate."

"Tell me what he said, Mr. Kennedy." This was said sternly, watching Kennedy closely.

"He said, sir," said Archie, standing very stiffly, "that you and I were each other's­ each other's­ and that neither of us was man enough to er­ for­ Miss Wingate­and that she'd do better to have a man who could­" Archie broke off and cleared his throat. "Sir!"

"I see," Hornblower said gravely. "What was the punishment meted out?"

"I had him put in irons, sir, until you could decide the further discipline needed."

"Very good, Mr. Kennedy."

"Aye, sir."

Hornblower sat down at the table. "And now, Archie, tell me why this is so upsetting to you."

"Upsetting to me, sir?" he was still standing at attention.

"Yes, Archie, you're shaking."

Archie struggled with himself. "Horatio, I've never wanted to run someone through so badly in all my life!"

"I am pleased you were able to restrain yourself."

"Horatio, don't you see? Some the men­they think that we­that you and I­"

Hornblower sighed. He didn't like thinking about such things, but it had to be done. "I expect they do," he said. "As long as they do not express it, and carry out their duties, they may think whatever they like."

"Horatio, something like that, if it were widely believed, could ruin your career!"

"And yours as well, I should think," Hornblower said dryly.

Kennedy struggled with himself again. "Horatio, perhaps . . ."

Hornblower waited for him to continue.

"Perhaps I should not be your friend anymore," he blurted. "Distance myself. You'd do better without me."

Horatio smiled a little. "Don't be absurd. I should not unfriend myself, even if I could."

Archie opened his mouth, but Horatio beat him to speaking. "Archie, you do not seem to ever learn this lesson. You are my friend, Archie. Any man who has saved my life as many times as you have cannot be bad for my career."

Archie had render a smile to this rare witticism, but it was short-lived. "Horatio­there are things you don't understand­can't know." They will say I liked it.

"I know I would never let something so foolish as a rumor deprive me of your companionship."

"But what if­what if­" Archie began desperately, but could not finish. What if there were a reason for the rumor?

"Archie," said Horatio slowly, "does this have anything to do with why you starved yourself at El Ferroll?"
Archie blinked nervously. He had not analyzed it that far. "Yes," he confessed, turning away. He knew he would not be able to tell him. If Horatio did not know by now what had happened . . .

"Archie," Horatio began, in his slightly lecturing tone, "no matter what it is, whatever is troubling you­it will not stop me from considering you one of the best men I have ever known."

Archie was glad Horatio could not see the tears start in his eyes. Horatio did not understand, but still, it was good to hear the words.

 

 

 

That night Hornblower eased out of his cabin, careful not to wake Kennedy. Very quietly he slipped into the bowels of the ship, listening intently, creeping into one particular hold, listening.

" . . . them two, and most of us half-starved. I won't be driven by a couple of bloody­" the rest of the word was muffled.

Hornblower eased away from the grating where he had been kneeling. It must be dealt with firmly. He had no pleasure this duty, but it had to be done for the ship's sake.

 

 

 

 

Alex woke to a startling flurry of footsteps overhead. Had she heard the cry for all hands? She dressed quickly and was just stepping into her shoes when a tap sounded at her door.

Outside stood Archie, his cheeks bloodless. "I've come to tell you, ma'am­stay below! Do not come above!"

She was about to tell him exactly why she was going to do the complete opposite when she realized that Archie was in a rather odd state. He stared absently toward the stairs, licking his lips every now and again.

"Kennedy!" she said sharply.

He blinked several times at her, bringing his eyes into focus.

"I will stay here. But please come and explain this to me later."

"Yes, ma'am." He seemed to gather himself, then strode toward the steps.

Alex was tempted to peek, but instead she waited in the passage, straining to hear. She had been hearing Hornblower making some kind of speech. A short one, apparently, for now he had stopped and a great murmur arose. "Silence!" he bellowed. (She heard that quite clearly.) More of the speech. Then a long drum roll.

Some kind of punishment. The gauntlet? The lash? What had the poor devil done? Whatever it was, Hornblower seemed to be dealing with it with decision. She wandered back to her cabin.

Why had she not known something was brewing? Surely Archie would have let something slip­unless . . .

Unless it was about her.

Had her defiance of Hornblower, though usually private, affected the men? Had he been right about her presence infecting them? Had she been an indirect cause of the infraction by her own stubbornness?

She knew it was possible. A coldness seemed to settle around her heart. She had been raised under the principle of noblesse oblige, that those of superior rank and substance had a duty to benefit those beneath them. Had she, in fact, been the cause of the poor man's infraction? Had she failed to live by her own code?
She heard Hornblower return to his cabin and begin pacing, pacing. A short time later she heard Archie's tap.

He was no longer panicked­only tired and drawn and sad. "He questioned the captain's command, Alex," he said gravely, extracting his handkerchief and handing it to her.

Alex glared at him. She wasn't crying and she didn't need a handkerchief. "Was it because of me?"

"Because of you?"

"Because­because I was out of my cabin and too much with the men, just as he said?"

Archie sighed. Alex knew he was tired and wasn't thinking clearly, but he was good at drying her tears­if there had been any, which there weren't. "Well, I won't say that it didn't have anything to do with it, ma'am­I'm sorry­but I will say it was much bigger than that. More about Mr. Hornblower himself. And me."

Alex blew her nose defiantly. "I see," she said.

"I'm afraid it's all part of discipline in His Majesty's Navy," Archie said ruefully. "I'm sorry you had to be aboard for it."

"How will the men react?" Alex asked quietly.

"Mortimer isn't well liked, and these men have seen far worse, but of course conditions are pretty miserable for them. Most likely they'll take this action as clear evidence of Mr. Hornblower's ability to command."
"That's good," said Alex, half to herself. "I couldn't bear it if I were the cause of something that hurt him."

"Yes," said Archie softly.

There was a long pause, both lost in their own thoughts. Finally Archie commented absently, "It's a shame­it can't be more than a few days till we're home, Alex."

Her stomach sank. Only a few more days with him, and then . . . She looked at Archie, fiddling with his cuffs, eyes downcast. The dear boy was trying to brace her.
For the second time she kissed him on the cheek and watched him redden slightly. "Your heart is pure gold, Archie Kennedy."

He gave her a lopsided grin and stammered himself out of the cabin.

______________________

 

 

 

Chapter Sixteen

 

Alex awoke to the sound of a broadside. She had fallen asleep in her cot during the afternoon. Alex roused herself, and whisked herself above deck. Her thoughts were racing. Was it possible they were under attack yet again, and this close to England?

Sure enough, a French brig was off the starboard bow, apparently in the process of veering off. Alex stayed by the stairs, hoping not to draw Hornblower's wrath.

She could see him standing by one of the guns on the main deck, with his bicorne and magnificent red-lined cape on. He was shouting something to the sweating men at the guns.

Archie came running up the stairs just as the brig fired its parting shot. It clipped the yardarm, and as if in slow motion, a segment of the arm and the sails began to fall Alex opened her mouth to shout a warning, but Archie was already yelling. Alex saw Hornblower look up as the rigging fell and knew he would never be able to move in time. While the thought was still passing through her mind she saw Archie launch himself into Hornblower. They both hit the deck a split second before the rigging. Then all was quiet.

Alex breathed, and then she hiked up her skirts and ran toward the men.

Mr. Hill appeared out of nowhere, shouting orders in his adolescent voice, reestablishing order.

Alex found both the men and cleared what debris she could from atop them. Hornblower's eyes were open, but he was stunned. He looked at Alex uncomprehendingly. Quickly she felt for a pulse at his throat. Yes­it was quite steady. Archie was deathly pale­was he breathing? Alex put her cheek to his mouth. Yes, she could feel something. And the pulse­his was pumping away as well.

Now, to their injuries . . .

Matthews was beside her, clearing away ropes and sheets. He went to Archie, easing him gently away from Hornblower, who still stared at Alex in bewilderment. "What happened? The brig?"

"You're safe, Mr. Hornblower," Alex said. "You've frightened the brig off. Mr. Hill has the deck."

"Archie?" Hornblower struggled to his hands and knees, only to gasp in pain.

"Lie still!" Alex ordered. His hat was still on his head, but one side was severely dented. Alex pulled it off and rifled through his curls to find the huge lump on that side, but it was not bleeding.
"Concussed," she said. "Horatio, how are you feeling?"
"My arm . . ."

"Can you sit up?" She had to get his coat off.

He sat up, grimacing, but did not complain as she eased his injured arm out of his sleeve.

"Is Archie . . . ?"

"Oh, he's all right, sir," Matthews said cheerfully. "Just took a knock on the noggin. He'll come around."

"The rigging­it just missed us," Horatio said, staring hard at Alex as she gingerly fingered his arm.

"Yes. Matthews, can you tell me­does he have a break?"

"We must get the sail repaired. Immediately," Horatio murmured.

"Not broken, miss. Just a bad wrench, I'd say. P'rhaps just a little sling, Miss Wingate?"

"Good idea, Mr. Matthews. I think I can find something."

"Archie­he pushed me," Hornblower said. "I was right under it."

"Yes, Archie saved your life," Alex said soothingly.
"He's all right?"

"Yes, sir. Let's get you up and back to your cabin so you can lie down, sir."

Mr. Hill came running up. "Are you well, sir?"

"No sign of the brig, Mr. Hill?"

"No, sir."

"Keep a sharp lookout, Mr. Hill. Have this rigging repaired right away."

"Aye, sir. But are you all right, sir?"

"I've hit my head, Mr. Hill, and I must rest. Come and fetch me if you need me."

Alex pursed her lips. The man could barely stand up and he was giving orders.
"Put your good arm around my shoulders, sir, and I'll get you back to your cabin."
"Archie­"
"We'll bring him too, in a bit. Come along, captain."

He was unsteady on his feet, but he could walk, and with a great deal of patience they made it to the cabin. Alex pulled off his neckcloth and shoes and tucked him under his blankets, carefully arranging his arm. She resisted the impulse to kiss his forehead.

"Thank you, Alex," he murmured. Alex felt disconcerted seeing those intelligent eyes so unfocused.

She walked back up to the wreck of the sails. Styles and Oldroyd were lifting Archie between them, and soon Alex was performing the same motherly acts for him. Only she did not resist the urge to brush Archie's golden hair out of his eyes.

Soon Styles returned to the cabin with a pail of fresh water, and Alex sponged the gunroom grime off Archie's face. He stirred and his startlingly blue eyes were open.

"Alex?" he said. His fingers groped for her face and touched her nose and mouth. Then he sighed and closed his eyes again.

"Archie!" Alex said sharply. "Archie, can you see me?"

Archie opened his eyes wearily. "Oh, yes, I can see you, ma'am. Just wasn't certain you were real."

Alex breathed a sigh of relief.

"Horatio­?" Archie tried to turn his head toward the other cot.

"He's all right. Just a nasty bump on the head and a wrenched arm. You saved him, you know."

"My head hurts like the devil," Archie said petulantly.

"Of course it does," Alex said tartly. "You cannot go about tackling people without having a few bruises to show for it."

Archie grinned but closed his eyes and was soon unconscious again.

Alex turned her attention back to Hornblower, who appeared to be asleep. She picked up the neckcloth she had discarded and began to fold it. There­an excellent sling for him to use when he recovered.

She looked down at Hornblower asleep. His eyelashes were splayed across his pale cheeks. How tempting it was to kiss him just once more . . . But she contented herself with bathing his face too, though he didn't need it. Then his long, beautiful hands . . .
Alex realized she had not even done the same for Archie, whose hands and arms were black with smudges. Though she dearly loved Archie, it was not at all the same. Besides, she had to scrub.

"Now what are you doing to me, Alex?" Archie complained, coming to as a result of her vigorous scouring.

"Why, I'm only making you presentable, Mr. Kennedy. See now? You're scrubbed perfectly pink, sir."

Archie suddenly laughed. "Come here, Alex!"

She leaned closer and he took the cloth and rubbed her nose. "You look like a climbing boy, my girl! What have you been up to?"

"I?" said Alex indignantly, submitting to his ministrations. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Horatio, eyes open, watching them. "Mr. Hornblower!" she exclaimed. "You're awake!"

"Yes," he answered shortly.

"How are you feeling, Horatio?" Archie asked.

"Terrible," he sighed, and tried to sit up.

"Lie down!" Alex growled, exasperated. "For heaven's sake! You ought to sleep for hours!"

"He always was a miserable patient." Archie had on his schoolboy grin.

"You keep quiet, Archie!" Hornblower was still struggling to sit up. "You're not exactly pliant yourself, as I recall."

"Look at me, Horatio! I'm as biddable as a lamb." Archie settled back into his cot with a look of angelic innocence.

"Well, if you're going to sit up, Mr. Hornblower, you're going to have to try out your sling." Alex said, slipping it over his curls and then easing his arm into it. "How's that?"

"Thank you, Miss Wingate. It does seem to help."

Someone tapped on the door, and Styles stood there. "Mr. Hill's compliments, sir, and if you're able, could you come assist him?"

Alex did not try to stop him as he struggled to stand.

"Styles!" Hornblower said. "I need your assistance, if you please."

And with the tenderness of a mother, Styles hoisted his captain to his feet and steadied him as they made their way out the door.
Alex felt strangely empty as she watched Horatio go. He didn't need her. And there were only a few more hours until he would be gone.
Archie's voice broke into her thoughts. "Won't you stay and read with me, Alex?" he asked hopefully.

Alex summoned up a smile for him. "I will, Archie, but not Hamlet. I am not doing any more scenes of death and destruction today!"

 

 

 

 

Kennedy scanned the land with his glass, watching Alex on the dock as she took the hands of a tall, elegant well-dressed man with obvious joy. Two admirals flanked this gentleman, and they bore her off quickly in the direction of the admiralty. She did not even look back.

"A fine woman, Miss Wingate, sir," Matthews said to Kennedy as Hornblower, who had been pretending not to look, went quietly below. "She has spirit, sir, that's what."

"Yes, Matthews, she does." Kennedy squinted at her disappearing form.

"I­er, thought perhaps she and Mr. Hornblower would make a match of it. If any woman's his equal, she is."

"Yes," Kennedy said absently.
"Or perhaps you and Miss Wingate," Matthews said slyly. "Seeing as how you and she were right tight, there, sir."

"Not," said Kennedy, turning to face him, "if Mortimer is to be believed."

Matthews' face hardened. "He weren't sir, and that's a fact."

"Carry on, Matthews," Kennedy said quietly.

 

 

 

_______________________

 

Chapter Seventeen

It had been an exhausting morning for Alex. She had debriefed the admiralty for what seemed like hours. They had asked the usual endless questions. Richard had not been very supportive, but she could really not fault him. She was just growing too soft. She knew she had changed, and she didn't like it. She felt vulnerable on every side.

No sooner had Alex settled down by the fire in the morning room to collect her thoughts than Tadwimble appeared at the door and announced ponderously, "Miss Margaret Stempole."

"Margie!" Alex smiled, rising to her feet and enfolding her young friend in her arms. "You didn't come alone, did you?"

"Oh, Alex!" Margie laughed. "You, preaching propriety?"

"Oh, Margie!" Alex mocked. "You know I am above reproach!" She studied her friend, who had only recently been emancipated from the schoolroom. Huge blue-green eyes which seemed to dominate her face looked back.

"Jane (my maid, if you'll recall) is waiting disapprovingly in the hall. She thinks you're dreadfully fast."

"What! And you a perfect hoyden!"

"Oh, no!" The earnestness was belied by a lurking twinkle. "I've changed so much since you were home last, Alex! I am a model of good behavior now, I assure you! And Mama means to present me in the spring!"

"With Eudora still unattached?"

"Yes," said Margie, grimacing. "She will never get married, Alex, for she's so dull!"
"No one will ever accuse you of that, my dear."

Margie sobered. "Indeed they will, Alex. I am so shy around young men now. If I can't be myself­you know, Alex­if I have to mind my tongue and be careful that I don't do anything gauche, I feel so overwhelmed!"

"I've just thought of an excellent plan," Alex told her. "I shall invite you, and your mama and Eudora, of course, to my party in a few weeks."

"Your party? You never give a ball, Alex! What is the occasion?"

"I don't give balls because Richard despises playing host. But this ball is to honor the dashing officers who brought me home."

"Oh, do tell me about your adventures, Alex! You are so fortunate to be able to do things without your maid! If it were on board a ship, I should take the opportunity to push Jane overboard."

So Alex gave Margie a censored and highly embellished version of the trip, leaving out the Spanish captain's attack but including the battle, emphasizing Hornblower's bravery and brilliance and Kennedy's gallantry and friendship. And she certainly did not mention the whipping.

"It sounds so exciting," Margie said wistfully.

"I didn't tell you the worst parts," Alex said. "It's not very pleasant being confined to a stinking cabin with nothing to do but empty your own, er, bucket."

Margie laughed. "An adventuress turned chambermaid! How diminishing!"

"Now, tell me, Margie, have you your eye on any young gentlemen in town?" Alex asked, turning the subject.

"Not an eye, precisely," said Margie, blushing. "And I haven't a chance, of course, but I cannot help but grow a little giddy whenever I see Lord Edrington. And we haven't even been introduced."

"Oh dear," Alex said. "I know what you mean."

"But Alex, surely you are not in awe of him too! Didn't you grow up together?"

"Yes, Margie, and I will tell you something else. I was determined to marry him when we were your age."

"Tell me!" Margie cried, her eyes dancing as she snuggled back into the cushions of the sofa.

"As you know, the Edrington estates march along with the Wingates'. Our fathers were very good friends, and as lore has it, one evening at White's they pledged that Edrington and I should marry so as to keep the families together. We were not yet out of leading strings.

"We grew up together, climbing trees and falling off our ponies and being teased and tortured by Richard. In the course of things, Edrington went off to school, and when he came back, he was the most superior creature. I was in awe, and more determined than ever to carry out Papa's wishes.

"But alas for the story, my dear, Lord Edrington inherited the earldom and never showed the least interest in taking me to wife. He is as cordial as one must be to one who once fished him out of a creek, but that is all."

"Well, he's quite foolish, Alex," Margie said hotly. "He may be as handsome and elegant and­and superior as he pleases, but if he cannot see what a treasure you are­!"
Alex laughed. "Margie, I have drawn consolation from the fact that he has never married anyone else, either. And," she continued teasingly, "I would not grudge him to a lady who deserved him."

Margie flushed and sighed. "No fear of that, Alex. He won't so much as look at me, I know."
"And are there any other gentlemen . . .?"

Alex listened to her young friend in amusement, prattling about her chances of marrying a handsome man with a respectable fortune. When Margie finally took her leave, after a lovely dish of tea, Alex settled into the morning room again, advising Tadwimble that she was not at home to visitors.

She thought with amusement of Margie, worried about being approved at Almack's. She would soon be married, with children at her knees.

Slowly Alex became aware that a great weight had descended on her. The future that had once been so full of hope and dreams of honor and country and the king now seemed desolate and lonely. When Edrington had not shown interest in her, she had turned her mind away from domestic things. Discovering Richard's involvement with emigres had piqued her interest in intrigue, and she had chosen that dangerous life over comfort and a future. She had never regretted her choice­until now.

Now, she had chosen a road from which she could not turn back. She had told Horatio Hornblower she would not consider his proposal (one he hadn't uttered), and not she would die unmarried and childless.

She could have had Horatio, could have been his lover, his wife, the mother of his children, watching at home with the little ones for him to return form a voyage with stories of the sea. (Well, that was a bit much to hope for, really, since Alex doubted she would sit at home for even one night, but still . . . ) She would not have been loved, of course, not in the way she wanted, but she would have been held in affection at least, and she would have died an old woman, attended by her grandchildren.

How noble it had seemed, at nineteen, to give up oneself for one's country, to die nobly before a firing squad, or by the guillotine, or on a mission. Now, it was a silly fantasy, ridiculous in its disregard for stark reality.

Horatio's face came before her eyes, oddly beautiful in its angles, and she imagined him cradling their child.

And Alexandra put her face in her hands and wept.

 

 

 

She was still weeping when Richard came in, was not even aware of his presence.

Richard was shocked. Something had been different about his sister since she left La Dora. She was evasive, a little too flippant in her manner. But Richard had never seen her cry like this. She had shed a few stray tears as she bore the agony of a stab wound in Portugal; she had been sad and withdrawn at the death of their father; she had dashed angry tears away when Edrington had not proposed. But this--this despair! For a moment he was at a loss for what to do. Finally he put his hand on her shoulder.

She only sobbed in response.

"Alexandra, tell me­what has happened?"

She sat up straight, sniffing and gasping and choking on her sobs. She eventually grew calmer, calm enough to look her brother in the eye. "Richard, it's worse than you can imagine. I've fallen in love."

Many brothers would have laughed at this tragic announcement, but Richard did not. He knew his sister too well. "With whom? Am I to wish you joy? Will he be calling on me soon?"

"Good God, no! He asked, of course, partially, but I refused."

"Refused? Why?"

"Well, he only asked because of the kiss."

"The kiss!"

"Yes, I shouldn't have done it, but he has that lip."

"That l­ Alex, are you mad?"

"Yes, I expect I am. Any lady in her right mind would jump at him."

"Alex," Richard said sternly, "you're hysterical. Pull yourself together. Who is this cad who's been kissing you? He shall marry you. I will not have you trifled with."

"No, I won't have him!" Alex cried. "I only wanted to trifle with him, to torture him a little, but he was so­ and I felt so­ and I didn't even know it until I kissed him."

"Alex!" Richard said, exasperated.

"Oh!" Alex moaned. "Richard, I­an heiress who has entertained dukes, and been courted by a marquis, who once refused to dance with Prinny when he was in his cups­ Richard, I've fallen in love with a boy! I even fainted. I! I've never fainted in my life! I suppose I just wanted to feel his arms around me, because, after all, I did wait until he was close enough to catch me. But alas! I had not considered that when one faints, one cannot remember the feel of one's rescuer's arms!"

Again, a lesser brother might have laughed at the tragic (if somewhat hysterical) note in Alex's voice. Richard, to the contrary, felt his heart sink. He had thought her unconquerable. "Who is this boy?" he asked.
"Hornblower," she whispered.

"Who in the world­oh, the captain of your ship. Alex," he said reprovingly, "I'd have thought you past the age of being impressed by that sort of thing."

"It's not just that!"she cried. "It's his eyes­those deep eyes­and he's so strong, inside, so full of honor and idealism, so intelligent, Richard (he could be quite useful to us!)­but he's still so young and he hasn't settled yet, and he doesn't understand­and he's so brave and­"

"I'm about to retch, Alex," Richard said dryly.

"No, it's all true! Look at me! I'm a shambles! I don't know if I'm on my head or my heels when I think of him, and I've been a watering pot almost from the first day."

"Surely this will pass," Richard said desperately.

Alex buried her face in her hands once again. She did not reply, but Richard saw her shoulders shake with silent sobs.

This would not pass.

 

 

 

 

____________________________

 

Chapter Eighteen

 

The Wingates' ball was an unquestioned success.

Alex and Richard stood by the entryway, greeting their guests as they were announced. Richard was already fidgeting and Alex tired of keeping a smile pinned to her lips. They were both remembering the boredom with society which had first propelled them into their current profession.

And then came the names, announced in stentorian accents: "Lieutenant Horatio Hornblower, Acting Lieutenant Archibald Kennedy."

Alex breathed a sigh of relief that she could not turn her attention to her guests of honor, and she looked at Richard, expecting him to share her feelings.

But Richard was not looking at Alex. He was looking at the man she had fallen in love with, his rage slowly rising. This was the man who had so imprisoned and tortured his sister's emotions, who had reduced her to anger and despair, alternately? This rawboned, awkward puppy?

The two of them stood before Alex and Richard much as they had when Alex had first met them­Hornblower standing stiffly, obviously yearning for the ordeal to be over, Kennedy, blue eyes sparkling and dancing like living things. Richard felt his lip curl in scorn, but he curbed it for Alex's sake. He would talk with Hornblower later.

Alex looked closely at Hornblower as he bowed over her hands. He had managed to put his arm through his coat sleeve, but he still used the sling she had contrived for him. The dark circles had faded a little, but he still looked terribly thing and pale under his tan­though his pallor could have been because he was dreading this evening. It was all for his own good, if only he could understand. Becoming an admiral was not all about capturing prize ships, managing prisoners of war, lashings and rationings. It was about politics too. In a little while, you'll be free again. Horatio.

Hornblower had not spoken to her, only murmured something polite as he bowed. When she met his eye she could see nothing but his armored shell. She turned to Archie, whose bow was an amusing mixture of grace and eagerness.

"Madam, you are looking very fine tonight," he grinned. "It makes all the effort of brushing Horatio's coat seven times, ironing his neckcloth and coaching him in the steps of the quadrille worth every hour."

Alex smiled, mostly at the agonized look of embarrassment Hornblower cast at his friend than at the remark itself.

She turned to introduce the men to her brother--and saw the look in his eye. She faltered a little as she said, "Gentlemen, may I present my brother, Richard. Richard, these are the men who so gallantly transported me home."

Richard and Horatio were standing, eyes locked, even as they bowed. Archie's eyes found Alex's in sympathy. Hackles were definitely risen.

"Gentlemen," Alex said, taking the arm of each officer, "shall we make some more acquaintances?" She brought them immediately to two of the denizens of the admiralty, who looked benignly on the two cubs for Alex's sake. She left her two escorts awed, and stammering a little, to join Mrs. Stemple and her two daughters.

"Oh, Alex, you look beautiful!" Margie breathed.

"My dear, I have the best abigail an heiress can buy!" She laughed. "Hello, Mrs. Stempole, Miss Stempole." The two ladies curtsied in response. "How are you enjoying your first unofficial rout, Margie?"
"I am in a dread that when the dancing begins I shall not have a partner!"
"I am the hostess, Margie, and I am certain I can find you an eligible partner." Out of the corner of her eye she spied Kennedy edging through the crowd. She eased away from the ladies, pouncing on Archie.

"Archie, you are a dancer, aren't you?"

"Why, yes, Alex, I can a little."

"Good. I've a forlorn young lady you must lead out for the first set."

"The first dance? But I was told that you and Horatio alone­"

She suddenly remembered that she could not introduce Archie to Margie with Miss Stempole unattached. Blast! This maneuvering was worse than orchestrating a cutting out. Her eye alighted on Mr. Brombury, standing alone, contemplating the champagne in his glass critically. Perfect! Just the sort of prosy bore to enthrall the bovine Miss Stempole.

"Mr. Brombury! How kind of you to accept our invitation! I don't believe I heard you announced earlier."

Mr. Brombury, surprised at finding himself addressed by a woman he had not spoken to over twice in his life, murmured that he was so pleased to meet Mr. Wingate's sister again . . .

"I'm afraid I need you to escort a partnerless young lady," she said, propelling him toward the Stempoles. She presented him to the ladies, pointing out his dancing skills to the placid Eudora. Brombury, far too well-bred to betray his surprise at being constrained thus, engaged Miss Stempole in small talk, allowing Alex to bring Archie to the fore.
Archie's mischievous eyes were in full dance at Alex's masterful manipulations, so when Margie first saw him, he nearly took her breath away. Lord Edrington was a cold stick compared to this startlingly handsome young man. His golden hair, fine-featured face­not to mention the striking uneeform­were only eclipsed by the dazzling sapphire of his eyes.

"Kennedy," Mrs. Stempole was musing. She too had been impressed with Alex's schemes. "Are you any relation to the Kennedys in Derbyshire, or Lord Carnell?"

She had not expected him to be: she had only asked to make conversation, and so she was dismayed as the light died out of his eyes.

"Indeed, ma'am. I am Carnell's son."

"His son?" she was surprised into saying.
"Yes, ma'am. His youngest son."

"But­I thought he had died."

Archie managed a smile "Not precisely dead, ma'am­but shall we say, all at sea?"

This lightened the atmosphere a little. Alex looked at Archie curiously. She should have put two and two together, of course, but with Horatio to think about . . . Hmm. A mystery here.

"Yes," Mrs. Stemple was saying, looking him over kindly, "you have your father's eyes, of course, but your hair, your nose­they're your mother's. But I must say, your chin is all your own. You see, I knew your mother a little. We were at seminary together."

"Did you, ma'am?" Archie asked eagerly. "I remember her only vaguely."

"I should like to tell you about her. You must call on us before you go to sea again, and we will talk."

It was Alex's turn to admire tactics. Margie blushed adorably.

At that moment Mrs. King touched Alex's arm. "Miss Wingate, the commodore is eager to begin the dancing."

Alex smiled a good-bye to the group and followed Mrs. King though the crowd. Commodore King had been so kind as to take over the musical arrangements for he and had suggested the first dance be led by Horatio and her.

Suddenly she remembered Archie's words . . . "Coaching him in the steps of the quadrille . . ." Oh no­perhaps he couldn't dance at all! And he was completely tone-deaf, if Archie were to be believed. What a coil!

"Shall we raise some eyebrows and have a waltz?" the commodore jested.

Alex quailed at the thought of dragging Hornblower through the steps of that dance. "Oh, no, sir!" she said coquettishly (the commodore liked coquettes). "All the ladies already think I am scandalously fast. And look at our injured captain. How would he manage it with that arm?" Hornblower was standing nearby, looking tragic but determined.

"No, commodore," Alex continued. "I have an idea that might be more fitting. How about a lively sailor's reel?" Surely Hornblower could manage that.

"A reel?" He was startled, but smiled. "An excellent idea, my girl." He hurried off to speak to the musicians.

By now the crowd had parted to make room for Alex and Horatio. Alex took Horatio's hand and smiled up at him. "You can manage a jig, can't you, Hornblower?" she said between her teeth and her baked-on smile.
"I­I think so, ma'am," he said a little breathlessly.

Commodore King was making a brief speech about the courage of officers of the Royal Navy and how safely they carried their cargo home. When he was finished the guests applauded politely and turned their attention to Alex and Hornblower. Alex curstied to them and then to Hornblower, relieved to find that he had taken his cue and was bowing as well. Then the music started.

For Alex, this dance was second nature, having learned jigs and reels as soon as she was able to toddle, tutored by an ungentle (at times) older brother who dearly loved to dance. She concentrated now on making Hornblower look good­well, at least as good as could be expected. His steps were mechanical, but executed properly. Oh, if only he could feel as free as she did, whirling and tapping and kicking, letting the music take her and swirl her­if only she could share this with him!

She knew her face was blissful, as dancing always made her feel, but she was pained a little, in a distanced kind of way, at the look of polite endurance on Hornblower's face. At least he didn't look as if he were mortified, which he probably was.

Why did she love him, knowing the flaws in him? Why had she fallen in love with the boy, a mere shadow of what the man could surely be? He was so serious, so morbidly introspective, taking everything to heart, so unlikely to laugh at himself. Alex thanked God for Archie, or Hornblower would certainly have turned in on himself entirely.

She must not think on this anymore. Just enjoy him­if that were possible during this miserable dance­while you still can, she told herself.
As other couples joined them, Alex closed her eyes and let the music wash over her, not even looking when they were to join hands and swing each other. The balance was thrown off with Horblower's inability to use his left arm, but they managed in spite of it.

All too quickly the dance was over. She was curtsying low to her partner, and he was making a surprisingly elegant leg. They had done it, then. Everyone had seen him clearly and would recognize and remember him, now. Thank God she had pulled it off.

Hornblower melted into the crowd as Alex was besieged with potential partners for the next dance (all part and parcel of being an heiress). But she found time to notice that Archie was leading Margie to the floor. Margie was quite obviously nearly bursting with pleasure at being so honored.

Later Alex found time to mingle and greet her latecoming guests, and was sure to point out Hornblower and Kennedy to any persons of remotest importance.

And so it was nearly two hours later that she found herself standing with Archie and Margie again, Archie having gallantly procured Alex a glass of negus, which Alex despised, but it was sufficiently thirst-quenching.

"Hello, Miss Wingate," said a deep voice at her shoulder. She turned to find none other than the handsome and elegant Lord Edrington, looking dashing in his red and brass regimentals. "I fear I must apologize for my shocking tardiness, madam," he continued, "but as you see, I have managed to present myself after all."

He was as tantalizing as ever­cold and enigmatic and charming in a regal kind of way. She remembered how she had longed to be the one to break through that icy reserve to find the real man behind it all. The idea still intrigued her, but she found she would rather spend the energy on Hornblower.

"How do you do, my lord. Richard will be so pleased to see you again. We did not know you were returned to England." Ah, how she had been beside herself when he had got his commission and taken to confining those luscious blond curls into that repressing queue.

"Yes, madam, as you see. I heard you were to honor the gentlemen who brought you safely home. I see now they are no strangers to me. Hello, Mr. Kennedy."

Kennedy bowed a greeting. "My lord."

Alex presented the blushing Miss Margaret, then asked, "You know my gallant escorts from another engagement, perhaps?"

"Indeed, Miss Wingate. We served together in France."

"France?"

"Muzillac," Kennedy supplied, rather grimly. "It is not a pleasant memory, ma'am."

"No, I fancy not," Edrington said. "The best we can say is that we all . . . grew . . . a bit those days." He eyed Kennedy with something like respect. "There was one act of courage that stands out from that campaign," he said meditatively.

Margie's ears perked as she emerged from her stupor at having her two gods within reach of each hand. Kennedy turned pink. "My lord, there is no need­"

"Mr. Kennedy," Edrington went on, as if he had not heard, "risked life and limb by running across a bridge that was about to blow up­indeed, was blowing up­only to save his, er, fallen friend, Mr. Hornblower. A very loyal man, Mr. Kennedy."

It was obvious to Alex that Margie's cup was full­having her former idol praise her current one­too, too much for one starry-eyed maiden. Archie was quite as obviously embarrassed, so Alex smiled at Edrington. "You see that I am not surprised, my lord. That is indeed the Mr. Kennedy I know."

 

__________________________

Chapter Not-Quite-Twenty

 

Across the room, Richard Wingate had cornered Horatio Hornblower.

"Well, Hornblower­I have not yet had the chance to thank you for the­safe­passage you provided for my sister."

The chin went up. "Sir, you are welcome, but I assure you, your sister needs very little protection. An indomitable woman, sir, if I may say so."

"Yes," Richard purred, "Alex is not easily conquered. You might say she takes some convincing."

The brown eyes flashed into gray ones. "Indeed?"

"Yes, but as I said, I am sure she was in good hands."

Was it his imagination or was there an emphasis on "hands"? Hornblower felt his temper flaring. "Sir, Miss Wingate will tell you all about the voyage, holding nothing back. And you will know you have nothing for which to reproach me." Not entirely true, but true enough. He had drawn himself up to his full height, and he stood eye to eye with the older man.
"She did, in fact, tell me about the voyage, and it is what she has not told me that disturbs me." Richard was pleased that this scarecrow of a boy was not dodging him, but he had to pay.

"Perhaps, sir, if you named your suspicions, we might clear the air." The jaw was set, the body posture taut.

"Did you, or did you not, kiss my sister?" There, the words were out. This boy might issue a challenge now, if he wished­but Richard was not afraid of any man.

Hornblower swallowed. "I did, sir," he said steadily.

"Then why," Richard's voice was low, silky, "are you not at this moment betrothed to her, sir?"

Again the nervous bob of the boy's Adam's Apple, but the dark eyes met Richard's squarely. "She would not have me."

"And perhaps you had someone else in mind for her, to take her as damaged goods?"

Hornblower's chin thrust out again. "Sir, she is not a child. She may make the choice of whom she will marry and whom not, and she will tell her secrets or not, as she pleases. But as a gentleman, sir," he added somewhat defiantly, "my lips are sealed."
Richard was satisfied with this answer. He could see what must have appealed to Alex now. But a little more torture would not be amiss. "Perhaps," he began, flicking an infinitesimal speck of lint from his sleeve, "they were not sealed at the time?"

The boy fairly quivered with rage. "Sir, you become insulting!" he hissed. His hand was edging, all unconsciously, toward the hilt of his dress sword.

It was time to end the game. "Ah, your mind runs to literalism, Hornblower. I meant only that perhaps you might have inadvertently mentioned the event . . . ?"

Hornblower did not look any less angry. "I give you my word, sir, that I have not breathed a syllable of this to anyone."

Richard eyed him. "Hmm. I see that you are sincere." A little change of posture, and he was all at ease again. "Well, I daresay I have been rather hasty. I am pleased she is back, unharmed, all the same."

Hornblower was obviously not certain what to make of this sudden change of tactics. He sounded mollified, however, when he said, grudgingly, "As am I, sir."

Richard nodded a casual dismissal and strode over to where Edrington was standing, conversing with a group of notables.

 

 

 

Margie and Alex still stood together was they watching Archie squire poor, unattached Eudora through a country dance.

"Isn't Mr. Kennedy wonderful, Alex?" Margie sighed.

"Yes, indeed. And he is quite cultured as well. You must ask him about the theater, dear."

"Oh, does he like plays, too? How lovely." Another sigh. "Alex, how on earth did you spend all those weeks with Mr. Kennedy and not fall in love with him?"

Alex laughed. "I suppose I might have," she said gaily, "if I had not already­" she broke off. "­had other things on my mind," she finished smoothly, carefully looking in the opposite direction from Hornblower, whom she had seen out of the corner of her eye, standing alone and wearing his familiar thundercloud aspect.

But Margie was no fool. Perhaps it was a kindred feeling that made her wise. "Ohhh," she said slowly, peeking around Alex. "Yes. I see. He is . . . he is beautiful, Alex."

Alex, in spite of having spent years disguising her true emotions, could feel herself blushing like a schoolgirl. "Er­yes."
"But a little intimidating."
"Yes." Compared to the charming Archie, Horatio was an utter labyrinth.

"Alex, you do pick the difficult ones." Margie was smiling. "You cannot tell me that you do not love a challenge­Lord Edrington and Lieutenant Hornblower, indeed! I cannot imagine two more difficult men to­to fathom!"

Alex and Margie both bust into girlish giggles.

 

 

 

 

Archie soon came to claim his dance with Alex. Oh, the bliss of dancing with the acting lieutenant! She could not help herself as she blurted, "Oh, Archie, was a relief you are, you dear boy!"

The mischievous grin was on his face. "When I saw your wretched performance with Horatio, Alex, I knew that this was the only truly gentlemanlike thing to do to make up for it!"

He was quite right. She could let herself go, knowing all she had to do was follow his lead and enjoy the sheer grace of him. But her laughter bubbled over. "Archie, you said you tutored him in the quadrille! And he could not even manage a respectable reel! Am I to suppose it is possible that his skill was worse that I had the pain to experience earlier?"

"Aye, ma'am," Archie grinned, eyes dancing. "You should see my toes, Alex. Black as coal! And I with my boots on, too!"

It was then that Alex heard the oddest sound. It sounded like­like Eudora giggling. Alex glanced over her shoulder and nearly stumbled.

Archie looked at her in a puzzled way. "It's Miss Stempole!" she gasped, by way of explanation. "She was giggling!"

"Oh?"

"Yes! Because Horatio was­was flirting with her!"

Indeed he had been. He had apparently seen Eudora standing alone and been compelled by some chivalrous impulse (as Archie no doubt had been as well) to ask her to dance--though he could not realize how painful it was likely to be to her. And Alex had seen him leaning closer to Eudora to murmur something near her ear. And then the blush and giggle. A giggle, a palpable giggle!
Archie's astonishment was as great as hers, and he craned his neck to see his shipmate. "I never thought I'd see it," he said, awed. "Horatio!"

Alex fought down a queer feeling­she couldn't be jealous, could she? Yes, she might as well be honest. Why had Hornblower never whispered sweet nothings into her ear? He had been willing to marry her, for heaven's sake­at least in a moment's madness. Now here she was jealous of Eudora Stempole! It was humiliating.

"Archie," she said slowly, "would it be too obvious if I were to start flirting madly with you?"

"I'm afraid it wouldn't make any difference, Alex." His blue eyes gleamed sympathetically.

Alex sighed.

 

 

 

 

________________________

 

Chapter Twenty

 

Alex leaned wearily against the doorpost in the alcove in the Great Hall where she had been saying good-bye to her guests. Most had gone, and she was spent. It would not be long now.

And then he came, alone, a little shy, but his eyes meeting hers frankly. "Good-bye, Miss Wingate," he said solemnly, his voice husky.

"Good-bye," she whispered. She did not trust her voice.

"I shall not see you again." How had he gotten so close? She could feel his breath on her cheek. And what a fool she was making of herself! She was trembling like a leaf.

"No." She dared not look up.

He took her hand with his good one and, as she watched, gently raised it to his lips, a little awkwardly. And that is how her eyes finally met his. His eyes held hers, and then they dropped to her lips, for only a second, and back again. This time there was a question in their dark depths.

Alex's breath caught. Where had he learned that? And how could he ask it of her? She was angry and ashamed of her weakness and giddy at the same time. And all the while there was the underlying sorrow.
"You­you must harden your heart, Horatio," she whispered. "As I have."

The dark lashes fell to hid the beautiful eyes, and he stepped away from her. He put on his bicorne and his magnificent cloak and his eyes met hers again. This time they were unreadable. "Good-bye, Miss Wingate."

"Good-bye, Mr. Hornblower."

And he was gone. Gone.

Alex closed her eyes and let the hot tears come. She despised herself, but she did not care, now, who saw her. She did not care.

 

It was Archie who found her there, weeping silently. He guided her into the small, open anteroom adjacent, to a bench along the wall, and sat down beside her.

"There, there, Alex," he said softly, pulling out his handkerchief. How many times had he dried her tears?


But she could not stop weeping, not for a long time. Archie stayed, giving her all the silent comfort of one who knew Horatio even better than she.

Finally Alex composed herself. "Archie, what shall I do when you are gone?" She smiled through her tears. "You and your heart of gold?"

"You will be all right, Alex. You will be all right."

Alex scrubbed her cheeks with the handkerchief. "I suppose I look dreadful."

"You look like someone who's been crying for the better part of an hour," Archie said frankly.

Alex laughed, but it turned into a sigh. "I can't bear it, Archie."

"You can and you must."

She knew this was no platitude, coming from his lips. She stood resolutely and smoothed her skirts. "Richard will have my head for leaving him the sole host for all this time." They moved out into the alcove, which was still deserted.

"I must go, too, Alex," Archie said reluctantly.

"I know. Good-bye, dear friend."
"Good-bye, Alex." He moved toward the door.

"Archie!"
He turned to face her.

"Archie . . . take care of him, will you?"

Archie nodded and turned the corner. And he too was gone.

 

 

 

 

 

Mr. Kennedy's thoughts were a jumble as he walked­he was far too restless to call up a hackney coach (that, and he couldn't afford it). His heart was wrung for Alex, and yet elated by the ball and the starry blue-green eyes of Miss Margie Stempole (whose mother had known his!), and yet angry at Horatio and yet sorry for him too. . . .

Look after him, will you?

Archie missed a step. Those words Alex had spoken were the same Edrington had said to him that miserable day in Muzillac. Could it be mere coincidence? Was there, perhaps, more for the life of Archie Kennedy than dreams and half-healed wounds?
Archie's steps faltered to a stop. What had he ever done to deserve to watch over Horatio Hornblower? How could he have known that first day, when he had shouted so carelessly, "Jump! You'll be all right!"? Everything had changed that day.

Archie resumed his walk, thoughtfully. He was not a man to shirk his duty once he understood it.

 

 

_________________________________

 

Chapter Twenty-One

 

(Several years later . . .)

 

"A letter for you, captain," said the steward, handing it to him before he ducked below.

Hornblower looked at it curiously. Ordinarily he would have gone to the privacy of his cabin to open such a mysterious packet, but his curiosity overcame him. He opened it carefully. Inside were four pristine white handkerchiefs, with "AK" embroidered on them in gold, and one solitary sheet of paper.

It read:
Captain Hornblower (for I feel certain you have reached post rank by now),

I write to inform you my sister is dead, having died of consumption here in this stinking prison, where I too shall follow her any day.

Her last thoughts were of you, though you did not deserve that honor. She loved you fiercely these several years, and could not abide my criticisms of you, even at the end. She bade me send this letter and ask you not to forget her words to you.

To Mr. Kennedy she returns these handkerchiefs. I do not know how she kept them clean in this filthy place, and less do I want to know how she contrived to obtain gold fillet and a needle, but she must have gold for her Archie, and so she had it.

We have died for our king, sir, and though I wish the consummation more quickly than did she, we prayed that you too shall die so honored.

Yours, etc.

Richard Wingate

 

Hornblower read the letter twice, and then stared at the handkerchiefs. Well, Archie was gone, had died to save his friend, and now so was Alex. She had warned him­warned him about women who beguiled and flirted and manipulated­but she had not mentioned those to be pitied. She had not mentioned them, but he ought to have known, ought to have used his great, brilliant mind to temper his honor, as she had begged.

What was done was done, and he had his duty.

He tucked the packet inside his coat into his breast pocket. It was a silly place to put it, over his heart, yet he did not move it. Harden your heart, she had said. He must harden it, or he would not survive.

"Sir?" questioned Mr. Bush, standing a few feet away. Hornblower could see the hesitant compassion in his eyes.

"Weigh anchor, Mr. Bush!" Hornblower bellowed at him. And in his voice was the smallest crack.