Illegitimate Polly Brandon has never felt like more than an ugly duckling. So she's amazed when Hugh Philippe Junot pays her such close attention as they sail for Portugal.
Under ordinary circumstances she knows this distinguished lieutenant colonel of marines would never have looked at her, but having his protection for the journey is comforting—and something more that she's afraid to give a name to. Should she trust what she sees in Hugh's eyes—has she turned from an ugly duckling into a beautiful, desirable swan?
Lord Villiers liked the idea and moved on it promptly. He unbent enough to tell Hugh, as he handed him his orders, 'This smacks of something I would have done at your age, given your dislike of the conference table.'
'Belay it, Colonel Junot! Don't bamboozle someone who, believe it or not, used to chafe to roam the world. Perhaps we owe the late Lieutenant Graves a debt unpayable. Now take the first frigate bound to Portugal before I change my mind.'
Hugh did precisely that. With his dunnage stowed on the Perseverance and his berth assigned-an evil-smelling cabin off the wardroom-Hugh had dinner with Surgeon Brackett on his last night in port. Owen gave him a letter for Philemon Brittle, chief surgeon at the Oporto satellite hospital, and passed on a little gossip.
'It's just a rumour, mind, but Phil seems to have engineered a billet for his sister-in-law, a Miss Brandon, at his hospital. He's a clever man, but I'm agog to know how he managed it, if the scuttlebutt is true,' Brackett said. 'Perhaps she is sailing on the Perseverance.'
'Actually, she is,' Hugh said, accepting tea from Amanda Brackett. 'I've already seen her.'
'She has two beautiful sisters, one of whom took leave of her senses and married Phil Brittle. Perhaps your voyage will be more interesting than usual,' the surgeon teased.
Hugh sipped his tea. 'Spectacles.'
'You're a shallow man,' Amanda Brackett said, her voice crisp.
Hugh winced elaborately and Owen laughed. 'Skewered! Mandy, I won't have a friend left in the entire fleet if you abuse our guests so. Oh. Wait. He's a Royal Marine. They don't count.'
Hugh joined in their laughter, at ease with their camaraderie enough to unbend. 'I'll have you know I took a good look at her remarkable blue eyes, and, oh, that auburn hair.'
All the sisters have it,' Amanda said. 'More ragout?'
'No, thank you, although I am fully aware it is the best thing I will taste until I fetch the Portuguese coast in a week or so.' He set down his cup. 'Miss Brandon is too young to tempt me, Amanda. I doubt she is a day over eighteen.'
'And you are antiquated at thirty-seven?'
'I am. Besides that, what female in her right mind, whatever her age, would make a Marine the object of her affection?'
'You have me there, Colonel,' Amanda said promptly, which made Owen laugh.
She did have him, too, Hugh reflected wryly, as he walked from Stonehouse, across the footbridge, and back to the barrack for a final night on shore. Perhaps I am shallow, he considered, as he lay in bed later. Amanda Brackett was right; he was vain and shallow. Maybe daft, too. He lay awake worrying more about his assignment, putting Miss Brandon far from his mind.
Hugh joined the Perseverance at first light, the side boys lined up and the bosun's mate piping him aboard. His face set in that no-nonsense look every Marine cultivated, and which he had perfected, he scanned the rank of Marines on board. He noted their awed recognition of his person, but after last night's conversation, he felt embarrassed.
He chatted with Captain Adney for only a brief minute, knowing well that the man was too busy for conversation. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Miss Brandon standing quietly by the binnacle, her hands clasped neatly in front of her, the picture of rectitude, or at the very least, someone just removed from the schoolroom herself. Amanda Brackett had said as much last night. She was a green girl.
He had to admit there was something more about Miss Brandon, evidenced by the two Midshipmen and Lieutenant grouped about her, appearing to hang on her every word. She had inclined her head to one side and was paying close attention to the Lieutenant. Hugh smiled. He could practically see the man's blush from here on the quarterdeck.
Miss Brandon, you are obviously a good listener, he thought. Perhaps that compensates for spectacles. The moment the thought swirled in his brain, he felt small again. What a snob I am, he concluded, turning his attention again to Captain Adney.
'. passage of some five days, Colonel, if we're lucky,' he was saying. 'Is it Oporto or Lisbon for you?'
It scarcely mattered, considering his carte blanche to wander the coastline on his fact-finding mission. Perhaps he should start at Lisbon. 'Oporto,' he said. He knew he had a letter for Surgeon Brittle, Miss Brandon's brother-in-law, but he also knew he could just give it to her and make his way to Lisbon, avoiding Oporto altogether. 'Oporto,' he repeated, not sure why.
'Very well, sir,' Captain Adney told him. 'And now, Colonel, I am to take us out of harbour with the tide. Excuse me, please.'
Hugh inclined his head and the Captain moved towards his helmsman, standing ready at the wheel. Hugh watched with amusement as the flock around Miss Brandon moved away quickly, now that their Captain was on the loose and prepared to work them.
Hardly knowing why, Hugh joined her. He congratulated himself on thinking up a reason to introduce himself. He doffed his hat and bowed. 'Miss Brandon? Pray forgive my rag manners in introducing myself. I am Lieutenant Colonel Hugh Junot, and I have some business you might discharge for me.'
She smiled at him, and he understood instantly why the Lieutenant and Midshipmen had been attracted to her like iron filings to a magnet. She had a direct gaze that seemed to block out everything around her and focus solely on the object of her interest. He felt amazingly flattered, even though she was doing nothing more than giving him her attention. There was nothing coy, arch or even flirtatious about her expression. She was so completely present. He couldn't describe it any better.
She dropped him a deep curtsy. Considering that it was high summer and she wore no cloak, this gave him ample opportunity to admire her handsome bosom.
'Yes, Colonel, I am Miss Brandon.'
As he put on his hat again, her eyes followed it up and she did take a little breath, as though she was not used to her present company. He knew she must be familiar enough with the Royal Navy, considering her relationship to a captain and a surgeon, but he did not think his splendid uniform was ringing any bells.
'I am a Marine, Miss Brandon,' he said.
'And I am a hopeless landlubber, Colonel,' she replied with a smile. 'I should have known that. What can I do for you?'
What a polite question, he thought. It is almost as if I were infirm. She is looking at me as though I have a foot in the grave, no teeth, and more years than her brothers-in-law combined. What an ass I am.
Feeling his age-at least every scar on his body had not started to ache simultaneously-he nodded to her. 'Miss Brandon, I have been charged by Surgeon Owen Brackett to take a letter to your brother-in-law in Oporto. I suppose that is why I sought to introduce myself, rather than wait for someone else-who, I do not know-to perform that office.'
That is marvellously lame, he thought sourly, thinking of the gawking Midshipmen who had so recently claimed her attention, and mentally adding himself to their number.
The deferential look left her face. 'Taking a letter to my brother-in-law is a pleasant assignment, sir. I am headed to the same place. Do you know Surgeon Brittle?'
'If you are too busy to discharge your duty, I can certainly relieve you of the letter, Colonel,' she told him.
'I am going there, too.'
He could think of nothing more to say, but she didn't seem awkwardly waiting for conversation. Instead, she turned her back against the rail to watch the foretopmen in the rigging, preparing to spill down the sails and begin their voyage. It was a sight he always enjoyed, too, so he stood beside her in silence and watched. Although he had scarce acquaintance with the lady beside him, he felt no urge to blather on, in the way that newly introduced people often do.
The Perseverance began to move, and he felt his heart lift, so glad he was to be at sea again and not sitting in a conference room. He would range the coast, watch his Marines in action, interview them, and possibly formulate a way to increase their utility. With any luck, he could stretch his assignment through the summer and into autumn.
'I have never sailed before,' Miss Brandon said.
'You'll get your sea legs,' he assuredher, his eyes on the men balancing against the yardarms. He hoped it wasn't improper to mention legs to a lady, even the sea kind.
In a few more minutes, she went belowdeck. He watched Marines working the capstan with the sailors, and others already standing sentry by the water butt and the helm. He nodded to the Sergeant of Marines, who snapped to attention, and introduced himself as the senior non-commissioned officer on board. A thirty-six-gun frigate had no commissioned officer. Hugh explained his mission and told the man to carry on.
He stayed on deck until the Perseverance tacked out of Plymouth Sound and into the high rollers of the Channel itself. He observed the greasy swell of the current and knew they were in for some rough water. No matter- he was never seasick.
He went belowdeck and into his cabin, a typical knocked-together affair made of framed canvas, which was taken down when the gundeck cleared for action. His sleeping cot, hung directly over the cannon, was already swaying to the rhythm of the Atlantic Ocean. He timed the swell and rolled into the cot for a nap.
Because Miss Brandon had admitted this was her first sea voyage, Hugh was not surprised when she did not appear for dinner in the wardroom. Captain Adney had the good sense to give her the cabin with actual walls, one that probably should have gone to a Lieutenant Colonel of Marines, had a woman not been voyaging. The Sergeant had posted a sentry outside her door, which was as it should be. There were no flies growing on this little Marine detachment, and so he would note in his journal.
There was no shortage of conversation around the wardroom table. The frigate's officers let him into their conversation and seemed interested in his plan. Used to the sea, they kept protective hands around their plates and expertly trapped dishes sent sliding by the ship's increasingly violent motion. When the table was cleared and the steward brought out a bottle, Hugh frowned to hear the sound of vomiting from Miss Brandon's cabin.
The surgeon sighed and reached for the sherry as it started to slide. 'Too bad there is no remedy for mal de mer,' he said. 'She'll be glad to make land in a week.'
They chuckled, offered the usual toasts, hashed over the war, and departed for their own duties. Hugh sat a while longer at the table, tempted to knock on Miss Brandon's door and at least make sure she had a basin to vomit in.
She didn't come out at all the next day, either. Poor thing, Hugh thought, as he made his rounds of the Marine Privates and Corporals, trying to question them about their duties, taking notes, and wondering how to make Marines naturally wary of high command understand that all he wanted was to learn from them. Maybe the notion was too radical.
Later that night he was lying in his violently swinging sleeping cot, stewing over his plans, when someone knocked on the frame of his canvas wall.
'Colonel, Private Leonard, sir.'
Hugh got up in one motion, alert. Leonard was the sentry outside Miss Brandon's door. He had no business even crossing the wardroom, not when he was on duty. Your Sergeant will hear from me, Private, he thought, as he yanked open his door.
'How dare you abandon your post!' he snapped.
If he thought to intimidate Private Leonard, he was mistaken. The man seemed intent on a more important matter than the potential threat of the lash.
'Colonel Junot, it's Miss Brandon. I've stood sentinel outside her door for nearly four hours now, and I'm worried.' The Private braced himself against the next roll and wiggle as the Perseverance rose, then plunged into the trough of a towering wave. 'She was puking and bawling, and now she's too quiet. I didn't think I should wait to speak until the watch relieved me, sir.'
Here's one Marine who thinks on his feet, Hugh thought, as he reached for his uniform jacket. 'You acted wisely. Return to your post, Private,' he said, his voice normal.
He had his misgivings as he crossed the wardroom and knocked on her door. Too bad there was not another female on board. He knocked again. No answer. He looked at Private Leonard. 'I go in, don't I?' he murmured, feeling suddenly shy and not afraid to admit it. There may have been a great gulf between a Lieutenant Colonel and a Private, but they were both men.
'I think so, sir,' the Private said. 'Do you have a lamp?'
'Go get mine.'
He opened the door and was assailed by the stench of vomit. 'Miss Brandon?' he called.
No answer. Alarmed now, he was by her sleeping cot in two steps. He could barely see her in the gloom. He touched her shoulder and his hand came away damp. He shook her more vigorously and was rewarded with a slight moan.
No one dies of seasickness, he reminded himself. 'Miss Brandon?' he asked again. 'Can you hear me?'
Private Leonard returned with his lantern, holding it above them in the tiny cabin. The light fell on as pitiful a specimen of womanhood as he had ever seen. Gone was the moderately attractive, composed young lady of two days ago. In her place was a creature so exhausted with vomiting that she could barely raise her hands to cover her eyes against the feeble glow of the lantern.
'I should have approached you sooner, sir,' Private Leonard said, his voice full of remorse.
'How were you to know?' he asked. 'We officers should have wondered what was going on when she didn't come out for meals. Private, go find the surgeon. I am relieving you at post.'
'Aye, aye, Colonel.'
Uncertain what to do, Hugh hung the lantern from the deck beam and gently moved Miss Brandon's matted hair from her face, which was dry and caked. She didn't open her eyes, but ran her tongue over cracked lips. 'You're completely parched,' he said. 'Dryer than a bone. My goodness, Miss Brandon.'