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St. Augustine, East Florida Colony
The instant Dinah saw the three naval officers, she ducked into the mercantile and hid among the stacks of goods. To her relief, the men, grandly uniformed in indigo wool, gold braid and black bicorne hats, continued up St. George Street. Yet she could not help but notice the well-formed profile of the captain among them. A strong jaw. High cheekbones. Jet-black hair tied back in a queue. She wondered what color his eyes were.
What was she thinking? She quickly turned her attention to a display of awls and knives laid out on a shelf.
"How may I help you, Miss Templeton?" The rotund, middle-aged proprietor approached her, admiration gleaming in his dark eyes. "Some silk for a new gown, perhaps? My latest shipment of lace has arrived and"
"No, thank you." Dinah lifted her basket of lavender flowers from her arm and held it like a shield as the widower moved closer. Coming in here had been a mistake.
"I do not require anything." Tension tightening in her chest, she hurried toward the door.
He reached it first, and his eyebrows arched. "I have tea from China and "
Dinah drew herself up to her full height and lifted her chin. "Please allow me to pass, Mr. Waterston."
He mirrored her posture, although his shorter height did not reach hers, and he sniffed. "I must say, Miss Templeton, for a girl with no family, you certainly do put on airs. Would you not prefer to be mistress of your own home instead of living with Mr. and Mrs. Hussey?" His shoulders slumped, his gaze softened and his lips curved into a gentle smile. "You could do worse than marrying a responsible merchant such as myself."
A twinge of pity softened her annoyance. "As I have told you before, sir, we truly would not suit."
Even if she found the merchant's offer appealing, which she did not, his reminder of her orphaned state did nothing to recommend him, nor did his reference to her living situation. She did indeed have relatives, but they were all far away. And yes, she would like to be mistress of her own home. But in truth, not one of the many unattached men in St. Augustine suited her, in spite of her friends' attempts at matchmaking. After four years in this small city, she had no doubt God had consigned her to a state of spinsterhood.
"I wish you a good day, sir." She slid past Mr. Waterston and walked out into the street, lifting a silent prayer of thanks that the encounter had ended without unpleasantness. She encountered quite enough unpleasantness every day at home.
Coming to this city had not been her preference, but she'd had no other choice. Even before the beginning of the war that now raged in the northern colonies, she had felt twice displaced. Her parents died when she was very small, and her relatives had been unable to take her in. Then, when the dear spinster ladies who reared her died of a fever, the elders of the Nantucket Friends Meeting placed her with the Husseys, for Mrs. Hussey had also been reared by the Gardiner sisters. Once the war began to escalate, Artemis Hussey insisted upon removing to this safe haven, where no rebels could threaten to tar and feather him for his Loyalist views. Over these past four years, he had grown more and more disagreeable and usually aimed his dissatisfaction at Dinah rather than at his wife, Anne.
But as Dinah continued on her way, thoughts of Artemis vanished amid the chatter and clatter along the dusty street. When she reached the Parade, the grassy common in front of the governor's house, she approached several well-dressed ladies who were whispering behind opened fans, their admiring stares aimed across the green lawn.
Elizabeth Markham, a friend near her age, beckoned to Dinah. "Did you see those handsome naval officers who just passed this way?" Her fair cheeks bore a rosy hue, as they always did when the subject under discussion included fine-looking gentlemen.
Dinah stared in wonder at the phenomenon upon her friend's countenance, for she herself never blushed. "I did see them, yes."
"Indeed, they are proper-looking gentlemen." Elizabeth's mother sent her daughter an indulgent smile, then touched Dinah's arm. "Dear Miss Templeton, you must join us for tea at the Rose Room." She waved her hand to take in the others in her little gathering. All the ladies added their approval of the invitation.
"I thank you, Mrs. Markham." Dinah nodded toward her basket of lavender. "Perhaps after I complete my errand. Tea would be just the thing." She hurried past the group.
The ladies' jasmine and rose perfumes mingled with earthy street smells, all swept along by a warm ocean breeze. Throughout the Parade, vendors hawked their wares, everything from cast-iron kettles to candles to live chickens to freshly cut meat, while the squeals of children at play echoed across the lawn. Two gentlemen Dinah knew from St. Peter's Church doffed their hats, bowed and greeted her with the customary pleasantries. She returned a curtsey but excused herself from further conversation. Instead, she continued up St. George Street toward her destination, maintaining her distance from the British uniforms. They no doubt were on their way to Fort St. Marks, and her objective was a little farther away.
To her right lay Matanzas Bay, and a new shipa British frigate, if she was not mistakenbobbed in the mild current, sails furled to its three tall masts. Last evening, she had heard the bells ringing from the Anas-tasia Island watchtower, signaling a ship's arrival over the bar. No doubt those officers came from the vessel.
After a walk of perhaps a hundred yards beyond the city proper, she saw to her dismay that the officers had continued past the fort and turned in at the military infirmary, her own objective. She released a long sigh. Perhaps she could slip into the building without notice. If she had not promised to bring the lavender for Dr. Wellsey's patients, she would delay her errand and return to have tea with Mrs. Markham and the other ladies until the officers went elsewhere.
The familiar odors of sickness and lye soap met Dinah's nose even before she opened the hospital's front door, for all the windows of the building were open. She dismissed her own discomfort. Dr. Wellsey's patients suffered enough with wounds and diseases. Perhaps the fragrance of her flowers would help diminish the unpleasant smells.
Hurrying into the wide entry room, she brushed her straw hat off and let it hang by its ribbons down her back. As she made her way toward the surgeon's office, she caught a glimpse of the officers in the next chamber. With haste, she slipped into the small office and then out the side door to the herb garden to make certain the plants had sufficient water. Through the hazy glass of the back window, she saw the captain bent over a man on a cot, one hand resting on the sailor's shoulder. Every nuance of the officer's relaxed posture bespoke sympathy and concern, not the hauteur one might expect. He had removed his hat, revealing a broad, smooth forehead. Now he lifted his gaze toward the garden window, and she ducked back into Dr. Wellsey's office, her heart pounding. She hoped the captain had not noticed her presence, or if so, had assumed she was a servant.
Setting her basket on the floor beside the desk, she capped the inkwell and sharpened the feather quill. If not for her and Joanna, the good doctor's wife, his infirmary and home would be in complete disarray. She found a cloth and dusted his bookshelves and journals, taking care not to disturb the many carefully labeled bottles. Once while dusting, she had lifted a small urn of medicine and hours later was still able to smell the pungent odor of bear grease on her fingers.
The deep rumble of male voices echoed from the inner chambers of the infirmary. This would be the best time to make her escape unnoticed. Pulse racing, she made certain everything was in order, then placed the basket of lavender in the center of the desk. Dr. Wellsey or his assistant could disperse it throughout the rooms as they saw fit.
She hurried into the entry just as the doctor and his guests emerged from the back chamber.
"So you see, Captain Moberly, we make every effortwhy, Miss Templeton, what a surprise."
Dinah gasped. "Captain Thomas Moberly?"
"Miss Dinah Templeton?"
They spoke at the same time, and the entire company laughed. Relief flooded Dinah. This changed everything regarding these men. Or at least regarding the captain.
He strode across the wide room and lifted her hand to kiss it.
"My dear kinswoman, how delightful to meet you at last." His thick black eyebrows arched and his blue eyes sparkled. Bright blue, like the sky. The fragrance of woodsy shaving balm tickled her nose. Doubtless the officers had visited the bathhouse before coming into the city.
"And I am pleased to meet you, Captain." Dinah curtseyed, then glanced at Dr. Wellsey, who wore an agreeable smile and showed not the slightest surprise. "Why, doctor, did you plan this?"
Dr. Wellsey chuckled. "I fear I cannot claim the credit, though to be sure, it is fortuitous."
"Indeed it is." Thomas released her hand and summoned his officers with an authoritative wave. "Miss Moberly, may I present Mr. Brandon and Mr. Wayland. Gentlemen, this is my sister twice over. My younger brother is married to her cousin, and my sister is married to her brother."
As the two officers stepped forward, Dinah saw in their eyes the usual look of sailors new in portas if they might devour her on the spot. She tried not to recoil. This was the very thing she'd hoped to avoid by evading these men. At least when the first officer kissed her hand, he had the grace to temper his expression with respect. "I am honored, Miss Templeton."
"Miss Templeton." The other man, a lieutenant who was younger by far than his companions, gripped her hand a bit too firmly. "Who would have thought to find such beauty in this backward colony?" His breathless speech was etched with an aristocratic British accent.
Seeing a storm brewing on the captain's brow, Dinah gently twisted her hand from the lieutenant's grasp. "How kind of you, sir." She honored them with another curtsey before focusing on her kinsman, whose expression now seemed as protective as her own brother's. How strange that the idea brought on a twinge of disappointment. Strange and foolish. The captain was a seafaring man and as such could never become the object of her romantic interest. Why, she would as soon marry the little merchant as a man who always deserted his wife for the sea. No, this man could be her friend, as he was to her brother Jamie, but no more.
"What brings you to St. Augustine?" Dinah gazed again into the captain's warm blue eyes. "Have you brought news that the war is over? That the rebels at last have been defeated?"
The other men responded with condescending chuckles, but Thomas's expression turned grave. "Would that it were so, dear lady. Unfortunately, each time we think we have crushed them, they return like the phoenix." Sorrow flitted across his eyes, but he seemed to blink it away. "To answer your question, my crew and I have been assigned to join the other two frigates now patrolling these waters and to defend St. Augustine and the St. Johns River from invasion by the Spanish fleet and pirates."
"Effectively taking us out of the war." The lieutenant's tone echoed with annoyance.
"Yes." Thomas shot him a frown. "And giving us a respite from death."
"Not to mention" Mr. Brandon's brown eyes twinkled. "Giving us an opportunity to enjoy a decent roast beef at one of the fine taverns in this fair city. A man wearies of salt pork and weevil-ridden biscuits." He shuddered comically, and the other men voiced good-natured agreement.
His remark sparked a scheme in Dinah's mind. "If you gentlemen will excuse me, I must take my leave. I hope you will enjoy St. Augustine. It truly is a lovely city, and we appreciate the regiment at Fort Saint Marks and the naval ships in our harbor." She turned to Dr. Wellsey. "Doctor, the lavender is on your desk. Will you see to it?"
He glanced over his shoulder toward his office. "Ah, yes. Thank you, Miss Templeton."
After the appropriate au revoirs, Dinah added, "Until we meet again, Captain Moberly."
She restored her hat to her head and paused to re-tie the ribbons and renew her plan. As soon as they left, she would come back and ask Dr. Wellsey where the officers were lodging, then send Thomas an invitation to supper so they could share family news. Perhaps he had information about Jamie, whose merchant ship was always in danger from pirates. And no doubt the captain would like to hear about his sister and brother, who dwelt on a plantation deep in the East Florida wilderness.
Before she could think of how to word the missive, the captain emerged from the building and stopped her with a light touch on her arm. Looking up from beneath her hat brim to see a smile as gentle as his gaze, she stifled the foolish giddiness threatening her composure. Gracious, he was handsome. But how featherbrained of her to think such things. After all, she had heard from his sister that this gentleman was one and thirty, an entire decade older than her own one and twenty years. Another reason not to make him an object of her interest. And with all those marriages between their families, he was practically her brother. Wasn't he?
"Yes, Captain Moberly?" Could he hear the squeak in her voice?
"Perhaps we can arrange to see each other soon to exchange family news." Thomas clamped down on the strange wave of feeling that surged through him in response to her glorious smile. This was the lady his good friend Jamie called his "delightful little sister." But instead of the child Thomas had expected to meet one day, here stood a tall, beautiful young woman in a pretty lavender frock that enhanced her dark-brown eyes. Eyes that exuded kindness and generosity. Eyes a man could get lost in. He mentally shook himself. What foolishness. He'd been too long at sea, too long out of society and the company of lovely ladies.
"Why, yes, I would like that very much, Captain." Her voice had a pleasing, mellow tone. "Will you come to supper this evening? I cannot promise roast beef, but perhaps something just as tasty."
The innocence of her invitation gave him pause. No matter how much they regarded one other as a family member, other people might not see the matter in that light.