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The Mouse was late. Admiral Sir Charles Bright (Ret.) was under the impression that he was a tolerant man, but tardiness was the exception. For more than thirty years, he had only to say, 'Roundly now', and his orders were carried out swiftly and without complaint. True, copious gold lace and an admiral's stars might have inspired such prompt obedience. Obedience was second nature to him; tardiness a polar opposite.
Obviously this was not the case with The Mouse. For the life of him, he could have sworn that the lady in question was only too relieved to relinquish her old-maid status for matrimony to someone mature and well seasoned. During their only visit last month, The MouseMiss Prunella Batchthorpehad seemed eager enough for all practical purposes.
Bright stared at his rapidly cooling cup of tea, and began to chalk up his defects. He did not think of forty-five as old, particularly since he had all of his hair, close cut though it was; all of his teeth minus one lost on the Barbary Coast;
and most of his parts. He had compensated nicely for the loss of his left hand with a hook, and he knew he hadn't waved it about overmuch during his recent interview with Miss Batchthorpe. He had worn the silver one, which Star-key had polished to a fare-thee-well before his excursion into Kent.
He knew he didn't talk too much, or harrumph or hawk at inopportune moments. There was no paunch to disgust, and he didn't think his breath was worse than anyone else's. And hadn't her older brother, a favourite commander who helmed Bright's flagship, assured him that, at age thirty-seven, Prunella was more than ready to settle down at her own address? Relieved, even. Bright could only conclude that she had developed cold feet at the last minute, or was tardy.
He could probably overlook Miss Batchthorpe's plain visage. He had told her this was to be a marriage of convenience, so he wouldn't be looking at her pop eyes on an adjoining pillow each morning. He could even overlook her shy ways, which had made him privately dub her The Mouse. But tardiness?
Reality overtook him, as it invariably did. One doesn't live through nearly three decades of war and many ranks by wool gathering. She might have decided that he simply would not suit, even if it meant a life of spinsterhood. He knew even a year of peace had not softened his hard stare, and the wind- and wave-induced wrinkles about his mouth were here to stay.
Whatever the reason for The Mouse's non-appearance, he still needed a wife immediately. I have sisters, he thought to himself for the thousandth time since the end of the war. Oh, I do.
Fannie and Dora, older than he by several years, had not intruded much in his life spent largely at sea. They had
corresponded regularly, keeping him informed of family marriages, births, deaths and nit-picking rows. Bright knew that Fannie's eldest son, his current heir, was an ill-mannered lout, and that Dora's daughter had contracted a fabulous alliance to some twit with a fortune.
He put his current dilemma down to the basic good natures of his meddling siblings. Both of them widowed and possessing fortunes of their own, Fan and Dora had the curse of the wealthy: too much time on their hands.
Fan had delivered the first shot across the bows when he had visited her in London after Waterloo. 'Dora and I want to see you married,' she had announced. 'Why should you not be happy?'
Bright could tell from the martial glint in her eyesWellington himself possessed a similar lookthat there was no point in telling his sister that he was already happy. Truth to tell, what little he had glimpsed of Fan's married life, before the barrister had been kind enough to die, had told him volumes about his sister's own unhappiness.
Dora always followed where Fan led, chiming in with her own reasons why he needed a wife to Guide Him Through Life's PathwaysDora spoke in capital letters. Her reasons were convoluted and muddled, like most of her utterances, but he was too stunned by Fan's initial pronouncement, breathtaking in its interference, to comment upon them.
A wife it would be for their little brother. That very holiday, they had paraded a succession of ladies past his startled gaze, ladies young enough to be his daughter and older and desperate. Some were lovely, but most wanted in the area he craved: good conversation. Someone to talk tothere was the sticking point. Were those London ladies in awe of his title and uniform? Did they flinch at the hook? Were they interested in nothing he was interested in? He
had heard all the conversations about weather and goings on at Almack's that he could stomach.
Never mind. His sisters were determined. Fan and Dora apparently knew most of the eligible females in the British Isles. He was able to fob them off immediately after his retirement, when he was spending time in estate agents' offices, seeking an estate near Plymouth. He had taken lodgings in Plymouth while he searched. Once the knocker was on the door, the parade of lovelies had begun again, shepherded by his sisters.
Bemusement turned to despair even faster than big rabbits made bunnies. My sisters don't know me very well, he decided, after several weeks. The last straw came when Fan decided that not only would she find him a mate, but also redecorate his new estate for him, in that execrable Egyptian style that even he knew was no longer a la mode. When the first chair shaped like a jackal arrived, Bright knew he had to act.
Which was why he now awaited the arrival of Miss Prunella Batchthorpe, who had agreed to be his ball and chain and leave him alone. Dick Batchthorpe, his flagship commander, had mentioned her often during their years together. Something in Bright rebelled at taking the advice of two of the most harebrained ladies he knew; besides, it would be a kind gesture to both Dick, who didn't relish the prospect of supporting an old maid, and the old maid in question, who had assured him she would keep his house orderly and make herself small.
As he sat in the dining room of the Drake, with its large windows overlooking the street, Bright couldn't help feeling a twinge of relief at her non-arrival, even as he cursed his own apparent shallowness. Miss Batchthorpe was more than usually plain.
He heard a rig clatter up to the front drive and looked up
in something close to alarm, now that he had told himself that Miss Batchthorpe simply wouldn't suit. He stood up, trying not to appear overly interested in the street, then sat down. It was only a beer wagon, thank the Lord.
Bright patted the special licence in the pocket of his coat. No telling how long the pesky things were good for. Hopefully, his two dotty sisters had no connections among the Court of Faculties and Dispensations to tattle on him to his sisters. If they knew, they would hound him even more relentlessly. He would never hear the end of it. He hadn't survived death in gruesome forms at sea to be at the mercy of managing women.
Bright dragged out his timepiece. He had waited more than an hour. Was there a legally binding statute determining how long a prospective, if reluctant, groom should wait for a woman he was forced to admit he neither wanted, nor knew anything about? Still, it was noon and time for luncheon. His cook had declared himself on strike, so there wasn't much at home.
Not that he considered his new estate home. In its current state of disrepair, his estate was just the place where he lived right now. He sighed. Home was still the ocean.
He looked for a waiter, and found himself gazing at a lovely neck. Had she been sitting there all along, while he was deep in his own turmoil? In front of him and to the side, she sat utterly composed, hands in her lap. He had every opportunity to view her without arousing anyone's curiosity except his own.
A teapot sat in front of her, right next to the no-nonsense cup and saucer Mrs Fillion had been buying for years and which resembled the china found in officers' messes all across the fleet. She took a sip now and then, and he had the distinct impression she was doing all she could to prolong the event. Bright could scarcely remember ever seeing
a woman seated alone in the Drake, and wondered if she was waiting for someone. Perhaps not; when people came into the dining room, she did not look towards the door.
He assumed she was a lady, since she was sitting in the dining room, but her dress was far from fashionable, a plain gown of serviceable grey. Her bonnet was nondescript and shabby.
She shifted slightly in her chair and he observed her slim figure. He looked closer. Her dress was cinched in the back with a neat bow that gathered the fabric together. This was a dress too large for the body it covered. Have you been ill, madam? he asked himself.
He couldn't see her face well because of the bonnet, but her hair appeared to be ordinary brown and gathered in a thick mass at the back of her head. As he watched what little he could see of her face, Bright noticed her eyes were on a gentleman at a nearby table who had just folded his newspaper and was dabbing at his lips. She leaned forwards slightly, watching him. When he finally rose, she turned to see him out of the dining room, affording Bright a glimpse of a straight nose, a mouth that curved slightly downward and eyes as dark brown as his own.
When the man was gone from the dining room, she walked to the table and took the abandoned newspaper back to her own place. Bright had never seen a lady read a newspaper before. He watched, fascinated, as she glanced at the front page, then flipped to the back, where he knew the advertisements and legal declarations lurked. Was she looking for one of the discreet tonics advertised for female complaints? Did her curiosity run to ferreting out pending lawsuits or money owed? This was an unusual female, indeed.
As he watched, her eyes went down the back pages quickly. She shook her head, closed the newspaper, folded it
neatly and took another sip of her tea. In another moment, she was looking inside her reticule, almost as though she was willing money to appear.
More curious now than ever, Bright opened his own paper to the inside back page, wondering what had caused such disappointment. 'Positions for hire' ran down two narrow columns. He glanced through them; nothing for women.
He looked up in time to see the lady stare into her reticule again. Bright found himself wishing, along with her, for something to materialise. He might have been misreading all the signs, but he knew he was an astute judge of character. This was a lady without any funds who was looking for a position of some sort.
Bright watched as the waiter came to her table. Giving him her prettiest smile, she shook her head. The man did not move on immediately, but had a brief, whispered conversation with her that turned her complexion pale. He is trying to throw her out, Bright thought in alarm, which was followed quickly by indignation. How dare the man! The dining room was by no means full.
He sat and seethed, then put aside his anger and concentrated on what he was rapidly considering his dilemma. Maybe he was used to the oversight of human beings. You do remember that you are no longer responsible for the entire nation? he quizzed himself silently. Let this alone.
He couldn't. He had spent too many yearshis whole lifetime, nearlylooking out for this island and its inmates to turn his back on someone possibly in distress. By the time the waiter made his way back to his table, Bright was ready. It involved one of the few lies he ever intended to tell, but he couldn't think any faster. The imp of indeci-
sion leaped on to his shoulder and dug in its talons, but he ignored it.
With a smile and a bow, the waiter made his suggestions for luncheon and wrote down Bright's response. Bright motioned the man closer. 'Would you help me?'
'By all means, sir.'
'You see that lady there? She is my cousin and we have had a falling out.'
'Ah, the ladies,' the waiter said, shaking his head.
Bright sought for just the right shade of regret in his voice. 'I had thought to mollify her. It was a quarrel of long standing, but as you can see, we are still at separate tables, and I promised her mother ' He let his voice trail off in what he hoped was even more regret.
'What do you wish me to do, sir?'
'Serve her the same dinner you are serving me. I'll sit with her and we'll see what happens. She might look alarmed. She might even get up and leave, but I have to try. You understand.'
The waiter nodded, made a notation on his tablet and left the table with another bow.
I must be a more convincing liar than I ever imagined, Bright thought. He smiled to himself. Hell's bells, I could have been a Lord of the Admiralty myself, if I had earlier been aware of this talent.
He willed the meal to come quickly, before the lady finished her paltry dab of tea and left the dining room. He knew he could not follow her; that went against all propriety. As it was, he was perilously close to a lee shore. He looked at the lady again, as she stared one more time into her reticule and swallowed. You are even closer than I am to a lee shore, he told himself. I have a place to live. I fear you do not.
Early in his naval career, as a lower-than-the-clams
ensign, he had led a landing party on the Barbary Coast. A number of things went wrong, but he took the objective and survived with most of his men. He never forgot the feeling just before the jolly boats slid on to the shorethe tightness in the belly, the absolute absence of moisture in his entire drainage system, the maddening little twitch in his left eye. He felt them all again as he rose and approached the other table. The difference was, this time he knew he would succeed. His hard-won success on the Barbary Coast had made every attack since then a win, simply because he knew he could.
He kept his voice low. 'Madam?'
She turned frightened eyes on him. How could eyes so brown be so deep? His were brown and they were nothing like hers.