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Aboard the Barkentine Night Dancer
Near Chesapeake Bay
Alec Carrick stood on the deck near the Dancer's wheel, half his attention on the beating canvas of the square-rigged foremast, and half on his small daughter, who was sitting cross-legged in the middle of a huge circle of coiled hemp on the quarterdeck , practicing her knots. From his position, she looked to be perfecting her clove hitches. She never took on a new task, or in this case, went on to a new knot, until she'd gotten the previous knot just exactly to her liking. He recalled she'd spent upwards of two days on her rolling hitch before Ticknor, the Night Dancers second mate, a young man of twenty-three who hailed from Yorkshire and blushed like a schoolgirl at any jest, had finally talked her around, saying, "Now, now, Miss Hallie, 'tis enough. Ye've got it, ye, ye have. We don't want yer fingers to be callused as a snail's, now do we? We'll show yer papa, an' jes' see if he don't say it's perfect."
And Alec had praised the rolling hitch. God forbid snail calluses.
Hallie was dressed like any of his sailors in a red-and-white-striped guernsey and blue denim dungarees. And, like his sailors', they fitted her small body like a glove, flaring out at the feet so that, in theory, she could easily roll them up to wash the deck or shinny up the rigging. She was wearing a straw tarpaulin hat, its broad brim giving a decent runoff of drizzle when it rained, and tar and oil keeping it black and waterproof. Most important, it protected Hallie's face from the sun. She was fair complexioned and it worried Alec, until he'd managed to convince her never toremove her hat during the daylight hours on deck. He'd told her that he didn't want her to be the first four-year-old with weathered leather skin like old Punko's, the sailmaker.
Hallie had raised her blue eyes to his face and said, "Papa, really, I'm very nearly five now."
"Sorry, "' -he'd said, and pulled the hat almost to her eyebrows. "If you're nearly five, that makes me a very old man. HI be thirty-two not too long after you're five."
Hallie studied him with intense scrutiny. She shook her head. "No, you're not old, Papa. I agree with Miss Blanchard. You're beautiful. I don't know much about Greek coins, like Miss Blanchard must, but even Mrs. Swindel sometimes just stares at you. I "Miss Blanchard," Alec repeated in a thin, stunned voice, disregarding the rest of his daughter's confidences.
"She was here once, don't you remember? Last May, when we were in London. You brought her here to visit. She was laughing and telling you how beautiful you were and how she wanted to do things to you, and you told her that her bottom was equallysomething to behold and that--"
"All right, that's enough," Alec said, quickly closing his hand over his daughter's mouth. He saw Ticknor staring at him, his hand over his own mouth to keep in his chuckles. "Quite enough." He felt a large dose of guilt and an insane urge to laugh. He it afternoon some five months be fore. He'd thought Hallie was with Mrs. Swindel, her nanny, in their London town house, so when Eileen Blanchard had begged to visit one of his ships, he'd brought her. He groaned to himself. At least he hadn't made love to her. Hallie might just have walked in on them and asked for an explanation in that calm, quite curious little voice of hers.
Alec grinned toward his daughter. Hallie was precocious, something of a handful, very serious, so beautiful he sometimes felt tears sting his eyes just looking at her, and she was his. A gift from a God who had forgiven him his rantings, his frozenness, and his initial mess.
Hallie, now, was also barefoot, her small feet as brown and tough as any of the sailors'. Her toes were wiggling to the beat of Pippin's sea chantey, a funny tale of a captain who managed to lose his ship and all his booty to the devil because he was too stupid to understand that a pitchfork and a tail were something out of the ordinary. Pippin was Alec's cabin boy on board ship and his valet-in-training on land, a bright lad of fifteen whose mother had left him on the steps of St. Paul's, a lad who worshipped him and adored Hallie.
Alec looked up at the foremast. The wind was northwesterly and steady. They were drifting leeward. "'Mr. Pitts, bring her in a bit, " he called to his first mate, Abel Pitts, who had been with him for six years and knew a ship's ways as well as he knew his captain's ways.
"Aye, Capt'n," Abel called back. "I was looking at that bloody albatross. He's leading us a merry chase and it ain't close-hauled he wants to be!"
Alec grinned and looked out over the horizon. The albatross, its wing span a good fifteen feet, was dipping in and churning, racing back to the barkentine, then sheering off again. It was a beautiful early October day, the sun heavy and bright, the sky a rich blue and dotted with the whitest of clouds, the ocean calm, the waves gentle and rolling.... Night Storm. Copyright © by Catherine Coulter. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.