Stopping the carriage a block away from what once been my best friend's town house, I opened the door for Dorcas and Wenton. "Put your bags under the seat."
"Thank you, Sir." Wenton had aged twenty years since I'd last seen him. I was willing to wager a goodly sum that they'd had him doing heavy manual labor the moment they had arrived with their own butler and staff.
They sat across from me, trembling with the exertion of their escape. I know that I was praying that everything had gone all right. From the tension at the end of my visit and the hushed voices in the hall as I was leaving, I was sure that my young Acting Lieutenant had carried off his mission.
"Sir, do you think all went well?" Dorcas was trembling and Wenton had one of her hands in his, trying to warm it.
"I think that young Mr. Hornblower and Ezekiel are even now a few miles ahead of us. Sit back and relax, you'll be reunited with Jane shortly." I spoke soothingly and watched them share a look of mingled fear and relief. I took my own advice and thought back over the last few hours.
The trip to the Admiralty still needed to be accomplished but if I sent a note to Admiral Grant pleading a personal emergency, tomorrow would be soon enough. The reports to be filed could be written tonight if Horatio helped. His handwriting was clear and precise. That little frisson that thinking about him brought was a familiar one after the last few months.
After all these years, I was once again in love. Looking out the window at the fog shrouded streets; I sighed inwardly at the rueful acknowledgment of an emotion that at first I hadn't even recognized. He'd been just another ensign at the start of a hopefully long career in His Majesty's service when he came aboard the Indy. I still wasn't sure when he'd gone from another young lad to whom I was teaching seamanship, to the young man who made my heart leap with just the sound of his voice.
I was a foolish old man to even think of the emotions of love and need in conjunction with the beautiful young man who'd crept into my heart. Perhaps it was the debacle with Mr. Simpson that first opened my eyes or his endearing youthful energy while attempting a new task. Whatever it was, I was learning to live with the ache that never went away. I'd even dreamed of our lovemaking, making a mess of my sheets on more than one occasion.
I shook my head at the silly thought that the brave youngster who was close friends with the beautiful Kennedy would ever even contemplate his old captain in the role of lover. It had been a bit of masochism on my part to choose him for the first trip to the Admiralty. I enjoyed seeing his reaction to new experiences and wasn't quite ready to say goodbye to him for the duration of his shore leave.
Of course, I'd been planning a visit to Stephen with another one of the books I'd found in the Moroccan flea market. A silk shawl the same shade of Jane's eyes had soon joined it and they were both waiting back at the Indy. I still couldn't believe that I'd never have another talk with my oldest friend. Never sit by the fire and listen to his voice extol the virtues of this or that author.
I was going to miss him. And what I was going to do with poor Jane was something that I'd have to spend some time contemplating. I held in a snort, of course, Jane herself would have something to say about her future. If she wasn't so deep in melancholy that she couldn't come back to a normal life.
That worry accompanied me the rest of the trip. Tentatively, I went through the steps of opening up the small manor house that was my home away from the sea. No woman had lived there since my wife's death eleven years before. Jane and Stephen had made one of their rare visits almost ten years ago. Within the space of a week, Jane had transformed the garden into a veritable bower while Stephen and I spent long hours talking and taking gentle walks about the estate.
Perhaps that was the key to reaching Jane through her sadness. I could offer a garden long left to neglect save for a few beds of flowers near the flagstone terrace at the rear of the house. Of course the proprieties must be observed in the small village a mile from the estate. She might be a cousin come to visit and grieve. Or not, I frowned at the thought of how to keep her identity a secret or if that wasn't an option, who to enlist on her side.
If all else failed, I could offer her a marriage of convenience. I was long past the age where I needed a wife to provide me with an heir. My cousin James would inherit my small estate when I passed on. His happy marriage and six healthy children would take good care of any property I possessed. Jane and I were friends and that would go a long way towards reconciling us to a comfortable if not passionate relationship.
Sparing another glance at the pair across from me, I smiled at the tender way they held hands and the way his shoulder provided a safe haven for her nodding head. Comfort had much to recommend it as a solution to our current dilemma. I usually made do with serving help from the village when I came home but the two of them would provide just the kind of guidance that the daily women never seemed to have.
My musings had occupied my time so well that I was surprised to hear the driver call out, "King's Arms."
Someone opened the door to the carriage and I was glad to see Ezekiel's smiling face. "Everything go all right, Zeke?"
"Yes, Sir. She's safe and sound in the inn's back parlor. Tea just got delivered." He cocked his head to another carriage waiting to one side and I asked him to see that Dorcas and Wenton's bags were stowed safely away in Elijah's carriage. I took Dorcas in with me and let the innkeeper know that we were not to be disturbed until we rang for him.
Dorcas went straight to Jane while my eyes found Horatio who'd leapt to attention the moment he saw me. My smile must have reassured him because he graced me with the beaming grin that I'd only seen once or twice. My poor heart twanged uncomfortably at the beauty that lighted the entire room. It was with an effort that I wrenched my attention back to Jane but once I saw her it took all my will power not to show my shock.
She'd aged almost beyond recognition. Her chestnut hair had gone entirely white and the lines of suffering that lingered on her face doubled the age that I knew was hers. We were only a year apart but instead of 39, she looked sixty. Silently, I damned the two fools who'd punished her so badly in the middle of her grief. Perhaps a good long silence would be punishment enough for them.
Never knowing when she might reappear to denounce them, I thought viciously. That might possibly be an equal agony to what they'd done to her.
"Edward, how very kind of you to rescue my poor Dorcas for me." The melodious voice that had first captured Stephen's attention when they met was still hers to command.
"And Wenton is taking care of their luggage so our mission appears to have been successful. Mr. Hornblower, you have done well." I divided my attention between the two of them and watched him glow at my praise. "Now, someone said something about tea. I could certainly do with a cup."
Jane patted the seat beside her and I joined her there while Horatio hovered by a chair across the table. She motioned him to be seated and I nodded my approval. He sat on the edge of the chair and we both tried not to notice the trembling in her hands as she poured the tea. Dorcas had brought up another chair slightly to one side of her mistress, ready to leap up and rescue the pot should the weight prove to be too much.
But Jane persevered and soon we were all sipping tea as if this were an ordinary tea party instead of a rescue mission. Horatio tried not to be impatient, he really did but anyone could see that he wanted to know what happened next. I had to admit to wondering that myself so I broke our silence with a question.
"Jane, now that you've been rescued, will you come with us to my estate? I can promise you peace and quiet while you decide what you would like to do."
She was gazing into her teacup as if it held the secrets of the universe and for a long moment, I wondered where her mind wandered. Then she looked up and into my eyes. "I think I would like that, Edward. I'm ... tired, my dear friend. So tired that I wish to sleep for a week without worrying about anything but what's for tea."
"Then that's what you shall do. Elijah will drive us there today while I send Ezekiel back to London with a few messages. It will be late when we arrive but between the six of us, we should be able to make up a few beds and light a fire or two. I promise that you will have nothing to do but rest. How does that sound?"
Her eyes filled with tears and she blinked very hard for a moment before smiling at me. "It sounds like a veritable heaven, Edward. I wonder how your herbaceous borders are doing?"
I couldn't help but laugh and lean over to kiss her cheek. "I'm quite sure that you will be shocked and appalled at their condition. You are undoubtedly the only one who can rescue them from their sorry state. Now, drink your tea and eat a scone or two while I write to Admiral Grant, excusing my absence and setting up another appointment with him."
"Sir, there's a writing desk with supplies behind you." Horatio had finished his tea and looked like he was on pins and needles.
"Capital, Mr. Hornblower. It is still your choice whether to accompany us or return to your shore leave in London." I reminded him and saw him light up again as if I'd offered him a special treat.
"Please, I'd like to go with you and keep on helping you in any way I can." He quivered with youthful excitement and I locked his eager look deep in my heart.
"We can certainly use your help and perhaps a week in the country will do more for you than a week of dissipation in London." I rose to go to the desk and almost missed the grimace that flashed across his expressive face.
"I wasn't really looking forward to being alone in London." He said quietly and I paused, suddenly remembering his lack of family.
"Then we shall make shameless use of your strength and youthful energy. I promise you that you will be so hard worked that you will welcome the end of our leave." I sat down at the desk and saw reflected in the mirror above the desk his brilliant smile again.
"Thank you, Sir. I look forward to it." He took another cup of tea from Jane's hand. "I'm afraid that I know nothing of gardening, Ma'am but I can learn."
Her chuckle was almost rusty from disuse but I inwardly rejoiced that she was responding to the same joy in him that I'd always enjoyed. "I shall endeavor to make those lessons as enjoyable as Edward makes your seagoing duties. Tell me about yourself, Horatio. Why would you be spending your shore leave alone?"
I half-listened to their conversation while penning an epistle to Admiral Grant and another to my lawyer. I would need advice about what to do concerning Stephen's will and the legacy he'd left for Jane's care. I was vindictive enough to pursue the books he said he'd willed to me. They would prove a comfort to Jane when she was strong enough to once again enjoy life.
Her quiet plea for sleep had awakened a memory of the bad time after my wife's death. I'd felt so drained of all emotion that I'd slept for long hours, trying to forget the horrible loneliness of my waking hours. At least Jane wouldn't be alone while she grieved. I finished writing, folded the sheets and sealed them with the wax provided. Standing, I motioned Horatio to sit down again.
"I'm going to deliver these to Ezekiel and send him back with the carriage that brought us. Then we shall be on our way." I told them and went out to settle our accounts. Zeke listened intently and accepted his new role as messenger. I also settled with the innkeeper for our tea.
After availing myself of the head, I went back to collect my party. I was once again appalled at her shaky stance and need for assistance in walking. It would take some time to bring her back to normal. I took Horatio's place at her side so he could relieve himself then we were on our way. We sat side by side while the other three sat across from us. They leaned together to doze while we settled in for the long trip.
It took almost four hours to reach my estate with a quick stop at the village vicarage to collect the keys. The vicar insisted on giving us enough ingredients for an evening meal and agreed to send word to the green grocer that the manor was open. I promised to tell him why we'd come if he would join us mid-morning. Vicar Wakely was a good man and likely to be a fellow conspirator when he understood what was going on.
The two-story house soon loomed up in the dusk of early evening. Rain must have fallen recently for no dust marred our passage up the long drive. I hopped down from the carriage to open the front door and soon we were trouping through the halls to the back of the house to the kitchen. Wenton got the pump working while I started a fire in the big coal range. Dorcas was exploring the cupboards to find dishes and cooking pots while I sent Horatio to the woodpile for enough logs to heat three of the bedrooms.
I'd already castigated myself for my masochistic leanings but I foresaw no other choice but to take Horatio in with me. Wenton and Elijah would share a room while Dorcas stayed with Jane. I would see just how good my willpower was once I went to bed with my tempting companion.
I could see from the corner of my eye his reaction to the master bedroom with the grand four-poster bed that had belonged to the founder of my family line. Made of seasoned oak, it dominated the rest of the room. The white and green curtains that could be pulled to keep the heat in during winter stood out in stark contrast to the blacked oak. Wenton joined us with linens for the bed and I directed him to the next two bedrooms to unroll the mattresses and make up their beds.
Horatio brought up armfuls of wood and distributed it to all three rooms. The lamps were found and Jane filled them with oil so we had some light to see by. The warming pan was filled with some of the by now hot coals and the ladies bed warmed to remove any dampness that might have crept in over the long months the house was empty. Heated bricks took care of the other two beds.
By now, we were all down to our shirtsleeves and it was a weary crew who sat around the kitchen table for the simple meal of toasted bread and scrambled eggs. Heaven only knew what we'd have for breakfast the next day. Water was heating on the stove for our washing up and I carried Jane up the curving staircase while Horatio gave Dorcas his aid. Dorcas had packed both of their nightgowns and we left them in what had been my wife's room.
It was connected to mine by a large dressing room where most of my country clothes hung. Finding something for young Horatio to wear the next day would be difficult. Nightshirts I had in plenty but his legs were longer than mine and I was afraid that every shirt I owned would be too short in the arm. I might have to break out some of my father's clothes for him and those dresses that had belonged to my wife for Jane.
Perhaps the attic trunks would provide us with enough clothing to cover our nakedness.
Damn, there I went again, thinking of Horatio and naked bodies at the same time. It was appalling how depraved I'd gotten in my old age. He looked at me with a question as we finished washing the dishes together. I'd sent Wenton upstairs to see to the ladies comfort and Elijah was bringing more coal up from the basement to make sure the kitchen fire stayed lit.
"Sorry, Horatio, I was just thinking that this is not exactly how I'd planned to come down here. With only two weeks leave, I'd thought to come down for a day to check the place over and make sure everything was watertight. Speak to a few old friends and return all in one day." I chuckled and handed him the now clean skillet. "This situation has changed everything."
"If you're needed in London, Sir, I would be glad to stay here to protect Lady Jane." Those beautiful eyes were so earnest. "I quite enjoyed myself today even when I was afraid we'd be discovered. Your home is much nicer than what I was expecting to be occupying tonight."
I chuckled again and dried my hands, hanging the towel on the back of a convenient chair back. "If you were going to stay in London the entire time, I can well imagine what kind of accommodations you'd have found. We shall be very quiet here and I may well need to go up to London to see the Admiral. But we'll worry about that when the time comes. I am confoundedly tired for the little exertion I expended today."
As if in answer, he smothered a yawn behind his hand. "I do beg your pardon, Captain."
"Nonsense, Horatio, we're both entitled to our rest. Let's take up more hot water for washing." I went to the stove and the kettle that was steaming. Horatio held the ewer for me to pour water into and I thought longingly of the hot bath, I'd promised myself this morning. Not tonight.
Elijah joined us and we filled another ewer for him before banking the fire. I sent them upstairs while I made the rounds to be sure that we were locked up. It also gave me the time to talk sternly to myself about the temptations to come tonight. I would be strong and not give in to the need to hold him or touch him inappropriately. That lasted all the way up the stairs and into my bedroom.
Only to have all my good intentions go up in flames at the sight of him kneeling in front of the fire and sponge bathing his naked torso. He was beauty incarnate to my eyes. His broad shoulders tapered down to a slender waist and his hair curled riotously over his satin smooth skin. He looked up at my entrance; the sponge still wiping down over a small brown nipple that peaked in an instant as if in answer to my gaze.
It was going to be a very long night.
We spoke little as we got ready for bed. Turning our backs to each other, we slipped on the white nightshirts for modesty's sake. I told myself over and over that I was strong enough to do this, that I would keep his respect by behaving myself. Looking at the slim form slipping into the right side of the bed, I resigned myself to a sleepless night.
Actually, he was a very quiet bedmate and I found myself asleep in short order. However, I awoke in the night to find him in my arms, his head on my shoulder and his nose buried in my armpit. I traced the warmth of him all along my side, his organ lax against my hip and his arm hugging my waist.
Savoring the warm, sweet weight of him in my arms, I told myself sternly to enjoy this unexpected embrace and accept that it might not ever happen again. He looked to me for guidance and knowledge in seamanship, not lessons on lovemaking. And it would be love with him, not a casual affair of bodies.
But he had his whole life ahead of him and a brilliant career to create. I would one day find myself watching his career with pride that I had any part in his training. Closing my eyes, I willed myself back to sleep. This would be a favorite memory later when he'd moved on to his own ship and left me.
The next morning, I awoke first and eased gently away from his hold. Allowing myself a single caress to the tangled curls that obscured his face, I dropped a soft kiss to his temple and turned away to put on my robe. There was a lot to be done this morning and answers to my letters should arrive shortly. If I knew Ezekiel, he would be here for breakfast. I put on my slippers and carefully left the room for the kitchen.
Wenton had beaten me awake and the teakettle was steaming gently on the hob. He had water heating for our morning shaves and insisted on shaving me right then and there. We spoke of all that needed to be done and the knock at the back door announced both my messages and our breakfast ingredients. Elijah joined us then and he took Ezekiel up to their room while I went to the study with my letters. Flinging open the curtains and raising the sashes, I let in the bright sunlight and a fresh breeze from the north.
It was going to be a beautiful day. Sitting behind my desk, I opened Admiral Grant's letter first. He gave me two days to get settled before I needed to report to him. We'd been friends for many years and I'd been quite frank with him about the situation I found myself in. He offered his help should it be needed and I smiled at the thought of his gruff voice chastising the nasty pair I'd met the day before.
The man's voice could peel paint at forty paces. I'd love to see what it did to the thick hide of that bitch Catherine. I was vindictive enough to hope that she had spent a sleepless night worrying about where Jane was and whom she was with. The letter from my lawyer was an eye opener. He'd kept an eye on the Snow's for me for several years and had already obtained a copy of Stephen's will from Somerset House.
He'd written to their lawyer and received obfuscations in return. He was ready to deal with them and showed a positive zeal about the endeavor that told me I needed to see him within a day or so. I would combine a trip to his office with one to the Admiralty and perhaps another call on the Snows to ask after 'poor Jane'.
A knock interrupted my musings. "Come in."
Horatio entered with a tea tray precariously balanced on one arm while he coped with the door with his other arm. He was dressed in just his pants and shirt, his hair pulled back and his face scrubbed clean. "Good morning, Sir. Wenton had tea ready."
"Good morning, Horatio. Sit down and join me in a cup. Admiral Grant has given me two days to settle this affair before I must go back to London to brief him on our last voyage. He hints that we may be in port a little longer for the replacement of our guns. That would give us more time to solve this dilemma in which we find ourselves."
He nodded and poured for both of us before sitting in the chair on the other side of the desk. "Is there any kind of family connection, Sir?"
"Not between us. Stephen and I were something like eighth cousins twice removed. Not enough to satisfy the gossips. Vicar Wakely may have some ideas when he comes to call." I sipped my tea and thought again over the options available to us.
He turned the teacup in his hands as if the motion could help him think. "Perhaps you could hide her presence here for a while? She's so tired that it might indeed be a week before she'd have to be seen."
"True," I nodded. "But when she is seen, it must be in circumstances completely aboveboard. I thought of a marriage of convenience between us. I'd be gone so often that she wouldn't be burdened with my company except for the occasions of shore leave. And it would be nice to have the house lived in."
His eyes had widened until they seemed to fill his face before he bent his head over his teacup. "Yes ... that ... that would take care of the gossips. And you have been friends for a long time."
I wondered what he was thinking. "Yes, we have. I am at an age when comfort rather than passion is more the alluring emotion. She'd have her garden to keep her happy and a safe place to live with congenial neighbors nearby. We're both old enough to not miss the passions that are so necessary to young people like yourself."
Horatio nodded slowly. "Can like turn to love, Sir Edward?"
"Yes it can, Horatio. In time, you'll find someone who will be your friend and lover. My late wife was both to me and I never thought to bring another bride to these walls. But perhaps it is time to put my own predilections aside to help an old friend."
Silently, I added 'and steer you to a nice young girl to remove your tempting self from my side.' We finished our tea in silence and he took the tray to the kitchen while I went upstairs to dress. There was a lot to do today and some decisions to be made that would affect all of our futures.
And perhaps one more night of soaking up memories for the lonely nights to come.
End part two