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Twelve hours into the return journey from Admiralty House, Captain Oliver Worthy felt the familiar but unwelcome scratchiness in his throat and ache in his ears. "Oh, damn," he whispered. This was no time to be afflicted with the deep-water sailor's commonest complaintputrid ear and throat.
He tried to get comfortable in the chaise, mentally ticking off a long list of duties upon arrival in Plymouth, all of which trumped any ailments. The dockmaster was waiting for his final appraisal and list of repairs to the Tireless. The warped mastthe result of patching two splintered ones together was bad enough. Even worse, the inept captain of the Well-spring, who had crashed his bow into the Tireless's stern, caused more damage to a vulnerable part of the ship. Welcome to life on the blockade.
He had to make arrangements with the purser to complete the laborious resupply lists that ran on for mind-numbing pages. The chances of receiving all requested stores were slight, but he had to apply anyway. He also intended to release his crew, a few at a time, for shore leave. Oh, Lord, details and paperwork.
Right nownauseated from the post chaise's motion, his head pounding and his throat as painful as sandpaper grating on bruised knucklesall he wanted was a bed in a quiet room, with the guarantee not to be disturbed for at least a week.
Even more than that, all he wanted was a glass of water, and then another one, until he no longer felt that his insides were coated with slimy water stored months in a keg.
No landsman who took a drink of water for granted would understand the feeling of thirst beyond belief, as he stared long and hard at acup of water, green and odorous. After a month or two, the water would even begin to clump together, until swallowing the offending mass was like choking down someone else's spittle. After only a few years at sea, he developed the habit of closing his eyes when he drank water more than two months old.
Then there were the days of thirst, especially in winter, when the water hoys from Plymouth were delayed because of stormy weather. Days when even a drop from the malodorous kegsnow emptywould have been welcome relief. Like all the others on the Tireless, he tried hard not to think of water, but surrounded by water as they always were, such a wish was not possible.
Past Exeter, where the view of the ocean usually made his heart quicken, he began to reconsider his impulsive agreement with Lord Ratliffe. The whole thing was odd. At Admiralty House, he had made his report of Channel activity, this time to William Stokes, Viscount Ratliffe, an undersecretary more than usually puffed up with his own consequence, and someone he generally tried to avoid.
Oliver had been irritated enough when Lord Ratliffe tried to pry into his Spanish sources, something no captaineven under Admiralty Orderswould ever reveal. And then the damned nincompoop had asked for a favor.
Maybe it was Oliver's own fault. He shouldn't have admitted the Tireless would be in dry docks for at least a month. But the undersecretary had picked up on it like a bird dog.
"Aye, my lord."
"Not going home to your family?"
"I have no family." Too true, although why a country vicar and his wife should succumb to typhoid fever in dull-as-dishwater Eastbourne, when their only child had survived all manner of exotic ailments from around the world, was still beyond him. No family. A wife was out of the question. He seldom met women, and he was too cautious to trouble any with a seafaring mate. In these times of war, he might as well hand over a death warrant with the marriage lines.
"I want to show you something."
Ratliffe had picked up a miniature from his untidy desk and handed it to Oliver, who couldn't help but smile.
It was the face of a young lady approachingor smack on the edge ofwomanhood. Her hair was the same shade as Ratliffe's, but he could see no other resemblance. The miniaturist had dotted tiny freckles across the bridge of her nose.
Her eyes had caught and held him: brown pools of melting chocolate. He glanced at the viscount's eyes. Blue.
"She resembles her mother."
After another look, Oliver handed back the miniature.
"Pretty, isn't she?"
More than pretty, Oliver thought.
"She's old now. Twenty-one. This was painted when she was sixteen." Ratliffe sighed heavily, almost theatrically, to Oliver's ears. "She lives in Plymouth in a run-down inn owned by her grandmother, Nancy Massie, a regular shrew. Twenty-two years ago, I was in Plymouth. I made the mistake of dallying with the shrew's daughter. Eleanor is the result."
Oliver couldn't think of anything to say. "So you fathered a bastard?" hardly seemed appropriate, and to offer his condolences seemed even less palatable. He knew the viscount would continue, however.
"I did the right thing by Eleanor," Lord Ratliffe said, putting down the miniature. "As soon as she was five, I had her sent to a female academy in Bath, where she was raised and educated."
Oliver hoped he covered up his surprise. The country must be full of by-blows, and his superficial acquaintance with the viscount gave him no inkling Lord Ratliffe was one to own up to his responsibility. Imagine, he thought, bracing himself for whatever favor Lord Ratliffe had in mind.
Ratliffe threw up his hands. "When the child was sixteen, she suddenly bolted from Miss Pym's school and returned to Plymouth! I had made her an excellent offer regarding her future, and she thanked me by leaving my care and bolting to that wretched seaport!" He glanced at Oliver. "You're a man of the world. You know what Plymouth is like. Imagine my distress."
Oliver could, even as he could also feel his suspicion growing. Although he had only been a post captain for two years, he had commanded men for many more. Something in Ratliffe's tone did not ring true.
"Would you do me the favor of staying at the Mulberry Innthat's the name of itduring your time in Plymouth? Look things over and let me know how things are with Eleanor." He leaned closer. "I am certain a few days would suffice to get the drift of matters. I could not bear it if Eleanor has fallen on hard times."
"I usually stay at the Drake, my Lord," Oliver temporized. "My sea chest is there already."
Ratliffe sighed again, which only irritated Oliver. He was ready to say no, when the viscount shifted his position, and there was Eleanor Massie smiling up at him from the desk. Captivated in spite of himself, he wondered how an artist could capture such youthful promise in so small a space. A moment earlier, he might have just felt old. Now he felt something close to joy. For all he knew, the earth's axis had suddenly shifted under Admiralty House. Was the Astronomer Royal aware?
What harm would it do to stay a week at the Mulberry? He could look over the situation, make sure the shrew wasn't beating her granddaughter twice a day before breakfast, pen a report to the viscount and retreat to the Drake.
"I'll do it, my lord," Oliver said.
The viscount looked for a moment as if he were going to take Oliver by the hand, but he refrained. "Thank you, Captain Worthy. You'd probably understand my concern better if you had a daughter."
That will never happen, Oliver thought, as he returned his attention to the November scenery outside the post chaise window. Only a crazy woman would marry a captain on the blockade. And only a crazier captain would ever offer.
He closed his eyes after Exeter, deciding to abandon Miss Eleanor Massie to her fate. But as the post chaise stopped in front of the Drake later that afternoon, he knew he couldn't go back on his word, no matter how much he wanted to.
If Mrs. Fillion had been standing inside with a pitcher of water, he would have changed his mind again, but she was busy arguing with a tradesman. Oliver had quite forgotten into what octaves her voice could rise when she was on a tirade, and it made him wince. He came inside the inn and looked into the Den of Thieves. Sure enough, the perpetual whist game was in progress. Whist anywhere but the Drake tended to be a polite game, but he knew how noisy poor losers could be, and the room he usually rented was right overhead.
Mrs. Fillion drew breath from her rant concerning greengrocers in general, and this one in particular, and glanced his way. She came over immediately, which gratified him, but did not change his sudden resolve.
He held up his hand before she could even begin, trying to look apologetic and adamant at the same time. "Mrs. Fillion, I know my sea chest is already here, but I believe I will stay at the Mulberry this time. Can you direct me to it?"
You would have thought he had requested her to strip naked and turn somersaults through the Barbican, so great was her surprise at his request. Then a funny thing happened. She got an interesting look in her eyes, one he couldn't quite read.
"Captain, that is probably an excellent choice right now," she said. "It's only a mile away and not fancy, but you look like someone who could use some solitude."
I look that bad? he asked himself, amused, in spite of how dreadful he felt. "I think you're right," he said. "Let me send in the coachman and you can give him directions. And if Lieutenant Proudy is here, could you summon him? I'll just wait for a moment."
After letting his lieutenant know of his change in plans, Oliver struggled to his feet and walked slowly to the post chaise, hating the thought of getting inside again, but desperate to lie down, no matter how horrible the Mulberry Inn was.
If that was a mile, it was a longer one than found most places, Oliver decided, as the post chaise finally stopped in front of a narrow building of three stories. It was covered mostly with ivy that continued to cling stubbornly to the stonework, even though the November wind was trying its best to dislodge it. Paint flaked on the windowsills and door, but the little yard was as neat as a pin. He looked back toward the harbor. It's a wonder anyone stays so far away, he thought.
The post boy shouldered his sea chest and leather satchel and took it to the front door, which was opened by an old man with a wooden leg.
"Have you room?" he asked, as the old fellowhe had to be a seafaring mantook the chest from the post boy.
"Captain, you're our first lodger in at least six months."
Oliver stared at him. "I'll be damned! I thought this was an inn. How on earth do you manage to stay open?"
"We've been asking ourselves that lately," the sailor said and shook his head.
Oliver came toward him, trying to walk in a straight line. "Maybe I shouldn't even ask this," he began, "but is lodging just room, or does it include board?"
"Just room right now, sir," the old sailor said uncertainly. Oliver watched him glance at the post chaise, which had only gone a little way down Gibbon Street. "If you want, I'll call 'im back, sir. We won't deceive ye."
Oliver stood there on the front walk, undecided, when he heard someone else at the front door. He turned his head, even though he ached from the neck up.
It must be Eleanor Massie, even though her hair was cut quite short, in contrast to the miniature Lord Radcliffe had shown him. Her eyes were the same, though: pools of brown, and round like a child's. She wore an apron over a nondescript stuff dress, but Oliver couldn't think of a time when he had ever seen a lovelier sight. Even more to the point, she was looking straight at him, her brow wrinkling in what appeared to be deep concern for someone she didn't even know.
"I'll be staying," he heard himself say.
Maybe it was the combination of little food, no sleep, the swaying motion of the post chaise, the roaring in his ears, his throbbing head and the ill humors lodged in his throat. Before he could even warn anyone, he turned away and was sick in a pot of pansies that had got through a long summer and had probably wanted to survivehardy thingsbeyond late fall. Too bad for them.
"Pete cleaned him up. He's tucked in bed now, and all he wants is water," Gran said, as Nana came up the narrow stairs with her tray.
Eyes closed, Captain Worthy lay propped up in bed, the picture of misery, with red spots burning in his cheeks. He opened his eyes, and almost smiled at what she carried. He indicated the table by the bed. "Set it there and pour me a glass."
She did as he said, and handed it to him. He drained the glass and held it out for more. Only a little water remained in the pitcher when he closed his eyes.
"Can can I get you anything else, sir?" she asked. "Is there someone we can write who can be here to nurse you?"
"There isn't anyone."
"Oh, dear. There should be."
"No, Miss Massie," he said. "The blockade is the devil's own business and I'd never share it with another living soul. That old salt "
"Pete Carter? He works for Gran."
" tells me there is no board here."
"With the blockade and general shortages, Captain, we don't have the clientele or the resources to provide food anymore. I'm truly sorry." She hesitated. His eyes never left her face. "Perhaps you will want to reconsider and return to the Drake tomorrow."
"No. I am here to stay until my ship is out of dry dock."
"You really want to stay at the Mulberry?" she asked in frank surprise.
She could tell he felt miserable, and he was having a hard time keeping his eyes open. "Well, yes," he replied, even smiling a little. "Am I, er allowed?"
He sounded so much like a small schoolboy in that moment that she had to laugh. "Of course you are! We're delighted to have you. It's just that meals "
He pointed to the bureau. "Pete said he stowed my purse in the top drawer. Get it out, please, Miss Massie, and take what you need to provide me with three meals a day. Right now I favor porridge with lots of cream and sugar, mainly because I do not think anything else will stay down."
She had never rustled about in someone else's possessions before, but the captain appeared to expect it, so she did, pulling out his purse. She closed the drawer quickly and brought the purse to his bed. He opened it and she tried not to stare at the coins.
He counted out a generous handful. "When this is gone, just ask for more. Miss Massie, I like to eat well when I am in port." He looked at her with that frank gaze that should have embarrassed her, but didn't. "I expect the people who run the inn to eat well, too."
"Certainly, sir. Can I get you anything now?"
"What are you having for dinner?"
"A little tea and toast," she replied, then wished she had said nothing, or lied, because it was starvation food. "I mean, I ate a large meal at noon and wasn't "
He took her by the wrist. "Miss Massie, I intend to stay at the Mulberry for a month, but if you tell me another lie, I'll be gone tomorrow."
"Yes, Captain," she replied, her voice no more than a whisper. "T-toast."
She shook her head, too embarrassed to look at him. He was still holding her wrist, but his grip was easy.
He let go of her then, and relaxed against the pillows again. "All I need tonight is another pitcher of water. Would you do me a favor?"
"Anything, Captain," she said and meant it.
"Ask Pete if he knows a good remedy for sailor's throat."
"He has a thousand cures, almost as many as Scheherazade had tales."
Her answer made him smile. "I'll wager he has. And might your your grandmama know of a poultice for my throat?"
That is odd, she thought. How does he know about Gran? "Have you stayed here before?" she asked. "I don't believe I mentioned Gran."
It was his turn to look confused. "Pete must have said something," he replied.
"That's a whopper," she said candidly, looking him in the eyes.
He looked at her in exasperation. "I do believe an older woman was in here when Pete relieved me of my uniform and bared me to the skin, but I didn't want to be so indelicate!"
She left the room, smiling to herself.