An Accidental Fire on Christmas Eve - Elizabeth Essex
When not rereading Jane Austen, mucking about in her garden and simply messing about with boats, award-winning author Elizabeth Essex can be always be found with her laptop, making up stories about heroes and heroines who live far more exciting lives than she. It wasn’t always so. Long before she ever set pen to paper, Elizabeth graduated from Hollins College with a BA in Classics, and then earned her MA in Nautical Archaeology from Texas A&M University. While she loved the life of an underwater archaeologist, she has found her true calling writing lush, lyrical historical romance full of passion, daring and adventure.
Elizabeth lives in Texas with her husband, the indispensable Mr. Essex, and her active and exuberant family in an old house filled to the brim with books.
Places to find Elizabeth:
When last we saw the crew of HMS Audacious, in ALMOST A SCANDAL, they were recovering in the wake of the battle of Traflagar, and the assigning of a new captain, David Colyear. We visit them now, one year later, as Audacious makes a Christmas visit to the Caribbean island of New Providence, where Captain Colyear is to be reunited with his wife.
West Indies Station, Caribbean Sea
It was a blasted book that started all the trouble. Just a plain-looking little book with the unassuming but intriguing title, “Pyrotechniques of the Italians: Being a Translation of the Arte Pirotecnica,” embossed in tiny, wormy letters across the red leather spine.
Will Jellicoe, fifteen-year-old acting second lieutenant of His Majesty’s Ship Audacious, had discovered the gem some months ago, in a dusty English bookshop in the port of Leghorn, Italy. He had picked the book up thinking it might be an amusing counterpoint to the perilously dry required reading of “Robinson’s Complete Rules of Navigation.”
And amusing it had proved. As well as instructive. Vastly. It had given him all sorts of brilliant, highly combustible ideas. Ideas whose time had come.
“I know just the thing for a Christmas celebration.” Will announced his brilliant idea to the gunroom at large.
Will’s friend Ian Worth, a lowly acting lieutenant like himself—“acting” because only two of their requisite six years of duty as midshipmen had passed in order to qualify them to sit their lieutenancy exams—let out a low whistle of appreciation, while at the same moment Charles Dance, first lieutenant, tossed his hat upon the table and scoffed, “You’re mad.”
“I’m not mad. I’m serious.” Will felt the familiar warm clutch of excitement fire his gut as the idea took hold.
“We’ll make it a Christmas eve to remember. In honor of Kent’s coming back.”
“You are mad,” Dance confirmed. “Kent’s not coming back, Jellicoe. The captain’s wife, Mrs. Colyear, is coming aboard. And if you had the sense God gave a holystone, you wouldn’t refer to her as Kent. At least not within the captain’s hearing.”
“Now, don’t be such a wet old hen, Mr. Dance,” Will groused with the contemptible familiarity that came from having lived cheek by jowl with the slightly older first lieutenant in both the cramped cockpit—back when they had all been infant midshipmen—and now in the roomier, but still crowded confines of the gunroom. “It will be a marvelous lark.”
“A lark?” Dance echoed in disbelief. He shook his head, wary to his core. “You are completely mad.”
“A terrific lark,” Will insisted as his enthusiasm for the notion grew. What better way to celebrate both Christmas and her arrival aboard than with fireworks? We’ll set them off from the stern, during the captain’s supper.” Everyone on board knew that Captain Colyear had planned a celebratory supper for the officers in his cabin on Christmas eve. And now that it appeared they would make landfall on the island of New Providence by that date, Will’s old friend Kent, who had been visiting friends there, could join them as well. “She’ll be able to see the display through the stern gallery windows. Or come on deck. However she likes.”
“However the captain may not like.” Mr. Dance remained both unimpressed and unaffected by Will’s fervor.
But perhaps sensing Will’s characteristic heedless intransigence, the first lieutenant tried another tack. “Do you actually know anything about Venetian fireworks?”
“I’ve got a book, haven’t I.” Will held up the slim volume in proof.
“A book?” Dance’s voice was dark with skepticism. “Damn your over-reaching eyes, Jellicoe. You can’t expect to learn something from a bloody book! Have you ever actually made, or even shot off, a real, powder-charge firework?”
“Well...” Will’s enthusiasm flagged a little with the first stinging application of logic. “No, but how hard can it be? I’ve shot off plenty of cannon.”
“Under an experienced gun captain’s supervision.”
“I like it,” Ian Worth broke in loyally. “And Moffat is sure to help. He likes Will, and he owes Will a favor or two, doesn’t he?”
“More like three.” Moffat was former gunner’s mate and warrant officer who had recently been appointed to the august and important office of gunner. He and Will had always had a good working relationship, as Will had always supported Moffat, and had seen to it that Moffat had been accepted and made comfortable upon his recent promotion to the gunroom, where the senior warrant officers were invited to sleep and eat their mess with the commissioned officers.
“That’s right. Moffat is sure help.” Which was a very good thing, as Will realized he would never be able to procure enough black powder to make firework rockets without the gunner’s consent. “And he likes Kent. Always did, anyway. Don’t you remember how Kent used to call Moffat ‘an anvil of a man’?”
“Mrs. Captain Colyear,” Lieutenant Dance emphasized Kent’s newer, formal name, “can call Moffat whatever she likes, and it’s no business of ours. But I tell you plainly, Jellicoe, I don’t like it, even if you do get Moffat to agree to your cock-brained scheme. If anything goes wrong, I will disavow any and all knowledge of your intentions. And I’ll see to it that Moffat does as well, for he’s too good a gunner to let get mixed up in one of your scrapes.”
Will’s scrapes, as Dance called them, had been steadily acquiring an admiring reputation, but Will felt he had only taken up where Kent had been made to leave off a year ago, after her legendary poisoning of the former bully-boy of the cockpit, Mr. Gamage. In Kent’s absence, Will had slowly built up his own impressive resumé of pranks, including stealthily tossing off a delightfully malodorous stink-ball in the officers’ gunroom; anonymously hoisting a banner upon the mizzen mast to announce the end of Charles Dance’s virginity; and stealing a milk cow from its home in a field in the French countryside under cover of night, and installing her in the forecastle.
With such successes behind him, Will was flush with confidence. “Nothing will go wrong,” he vowed with the blithe certainty of a born prankster who had once attached a live chicken to a string tied to the sailing master’s shoe—the resulting tangle of invective, feather and shin bone had been worth every stoke from the bo’sun’s cane.
And what had Kent always said? If you succeed, no explanation will ever be asked. And if you fail, no excuse will ever be enough. Better then to succeed and ensure that the fireworks were a triumph. And best to enlist Moffat’s professional help.
But Moffat had already been enlisted.
“Beggin’ your pardon, sir,” Moffat apologized not more than twenty minutes later, when Will approached him at the change of the next watch, “but Mr. Dance says I’m to have nothing to do with you.”
“Well, blast Mr. Dance for a killjoy. But it’s for Kent, don’t you see?” Will tried to appeal to the big gunner’s loyalty as he steered Moffat into the shadow of the foremast, well away from the quarterdeck where the soft, steady Caribbean breeze might blow their scheme into their captain’s sharp ears. “Just a few Venetian fireworks to celebrate Christmas, and Kent’s return. Here, have a look for yourself, and see what you think.”
Moffat took the proffered book, and silently paged through the drawings, giving each and every one of them a long, slow, careful perusal. For the longest time Will worried that perhaps Moffat couldn’t read, and was trying to suss the particulars from the inked drawings alone, but in the end the big man finally folded the book closed, looked to Will, and nodded.
“I don’t think I can help you with the colored sparks, seeing as we’ve only the standard black powder, but I think we might should be able to come up with summ’at that will do the trick nicely for our young Kent.”
“Brilliant, Moffat!” Will let out his breath on a tide of relief. “I knew I could count on you.” And then he got right to business. “We’re scheduled to make landfall at New Providence Island by the dog watch tomorrow, which should give us ample opportunity for making a firework or two before her arrival, don’t you think?
Now, I was thinking four rockets of these larger kind-”
“Four? Now, sir, you just said two.”
“Yes, two, at a minimum, and perhaps...perhaps one or two more—three if we can manage it—of the smaller ones, here.” Will reached to show him the page in the book. “Do you ken?”
“Oh, I ken, sir. I ken. And I’ll just keep ahold of this book, if you don’t mind. for safe keeping.” Moffat stowed it into his coat pocket with a pat. “If you’ll find your way down to my place of business later this forenoon, sir, I’ll see what I can fashion up for you.”
Moffat’s place of business was the powder magazine deep in the bowels of the ship, where the two of them sequestered themselves within the tight confines of the felt lined, spark-proof room. There, through the next twenty hours and the passage of five long, alternating watches—two on duty and three off—Will foreswore sleep and worked his arse off under Moffat’s exacting tutelage.
The gunner set Will to sifting an arcane mixture of powders. “Handsomely now, sir,” he cautioned. “That’s the flash, sir. Terrible volatile, it is, so you’ll need to control your movements. Go at it easy. No banging, no clanging. Move carefully and deliberately, and we’ll all live to see another day.”
They worked steadily in the perpetual night of the magazine, where the only light came from the safety lanterns encased behind thick glass on the other side of the wall, mixing and sifting, and weighing careful measures of powder into wooden pestles and bowls. Moffat added rice hulls to another powder mixture, while Will wetted and rolled a different mixture into hard round pellets. “It looks like grapeshot,” he observed through weary eyes stinging with the sulfurous vapors.
“That it does, sir,” Moffat confirmed easily, quite used to the fumes. “Only this is all powder and no iron. The flash without the pan, so to speak.”
“And the rice hulls?”
“That’s for a spark trail, sir, if I’ve read this right.” Moffat shrugged his big shoulders. “I suppose we’ll see.”
“I suppose we will.” But Will knew Moffat was nothing if not methodical and thorough, and he had every confidence that the gunner was following the recipes outlined in the book as exactly as possible, and would do them proud.
Yes. It was all going to be brilliant. Kent was going to be astonished and impressed. And Kent would know that his old friend Will Jellicoe had done right by him.
Or rather, her old friend Will had done right by her. He really ought to remember that she was a she—Sally Kent—and not Richard. And also that she was Sally Kent Colyear now. Captain Colyear’s wife. He somehow kept forgetting that.
But it was too hard to remember anything in the grips of the jangling excitement that came when the call for all hands to make anchor went up, and Will emerged on deck at the first bell of the dog watch to find Audacious coming up into the wind under the personal direction of her captain. They dropped anchor in the lee of a low promontory on the northwest side of the island, and no sooner had the anchor chain run through the cat head, than the lookout called, “Deck! Launch ahoy.”
And there she was, Kent, at the oars of a sleek little gig, rowing out to their anchorage, a figure recognizable even at the distance of a cable length—her bright, carroty hair streaming in the evening wind like a flag at the masthead, and her wide smile gleaming from her freckled face as she looked over her shoulder toward the ship.
Will felt a lurch somewhere deep in his midsection that didn’t come from the perturbation of the deck beneath his feet. Damn, but he had missed Kent. Even though more time had passed aboard Audacious without Kent than the few long weeks she had been with them, he had missed his supremely confident friend. He had missed the sureness he felt when Kent had been around. With Kent, everything had seemed possible—even the most daunting tasks had seemed easy and enjoyable.
Will moved to the fo’csle rail, to ensure that the anchor was indeed properly set, and to give himself an unobstructed view of the approaching boat.
And then she turned, and let go of one oar, and waved to him, and a wonderfully strange mixture of gleeful anticipation and trepidation dropped like a cannonball into the bottom of his stomach, making him even more unsteady on his pins. Sending him adrift, as if something had unmoored inside him. Something both happy and unhappy. Something unsatisfied, and filled with a strange, bittersweet longing for something....he had no name for.
But seeing her also filled Will with a sort of relief, too—a sureness that, at last, all would be right with the world.
“Ahoy, Audacious!” Her merry voice filled his ears as she called out, “Hello, Will!”
“Kent,” he called back, recalling himself to his usual brash, cocky self. “About damn time you got here.”
She answered with a laugh. “I could say the same for you, Jellicoe! Permission to come aboard?”
“Huzzah!” was her laughing response before she turned her attention to the lines that were thrown down to her gig to make it secure. And then she was shipping her oars, and flying up the ladder as fast as her skirts—skirts! Good Lord, she was wearing skirts—would allow, and before the bos’un had finished piping her aboard, she was moving through the entry port toward Will.
He couldn’t contain his smile as he struck his hand out to greet her. She shook it at once, all comfortable friendly firmness. “Mr. Jellicoe. Good Lord! Look at you. You’ve grown as tall as a masthead.”
It was as if his spine grew straighter, and his chest grew broader at her words. “Kent.” Will heard his voice crack and pitch somewhere in the middle of the syllable, but at that moment, he didn’t care if he did sound like an idiot. He was too happy. Kent had come home. “Damn me if it isn’t fine to see you.”
“And you as well,” she said. Her smile was the same as always, sunny and bright, but she looked different, too. Not taller, but older perhaps, and wiser, with the strong line of the scar cutting across her temple. But so very much like a girl—so soft and rounded and sweet smelling—he hardly knew what to say to say. But there was nothing more to say, because she was already letting go of his hand, and turning away. And moving beyond.
Toward Captain Colyear, who was reaching out his upturned hand to her from the quarterdeck stair. It was as if she saw nothing else—she had eyes only for the Captain. Her captain. Her husband.
That same unsettling feeling of being upended slid into Will’s gut, but there didn’t seem to be anything he could do about it. And he couldn’t stop his feet from following her across the deck toward the quarterdeck ladder. He couldn’t stop his slow, stubborn brain from watching her face light with joy when she grasped Captain Colyear’s hand as if it were a lifeline in a shipwreck.
And Will could not shut his eyes when Captain Colyear clasped her hand to his chest, and without saying a word to anyone, led her directly across the waist of the ship, and under the shade of the quarterdeck. Will continued to watch the scene that played out there in the relative privacy of the passageway, out of sight of most of the ship’s people, as if he were seeing it at the end of his telescopic glass—the captain pushing his wife up against the batten door to his cabin, and kissing her with a force and a passion that hit Will like a grenade to his chest, shredding his expectations as if they were made of canvas and cobwebs.
Captain Colyear—a man who always appeared calm and collected, who never lost his cool composure, or gave in to temper—was kissing his wife as if he were a drowning man gasping for one last, desperate breath of air. As if she alone had the power to keep him afloat. As if she alone could give him anything he wanted, and everything he could ever need.
And then the captain was opening the door and pushing her inside, and she was gone.
And the ship, which had seemed to hold its breath for the few magical moments that she had walked across its deck, let out a breezy sigh, and resumed its ordinary, work-a-day routine, and everything went back to normal.
But Will wasn’t normal. He was entirely flummoxed. “What the hell was that?”
Will hadn’t realized he’d spoken aloud until Moffat came up behind him. “They do say the Capn’ and his missus have been apart a six-month.”
“So? I haven’t seen her in over a year, and I didn’t fall upon her like a....like-”
“Like a husband, sir?” Moffat asked, not unkindly. “That’s what married people do, lad.” A comforting hand patted Will on the shoulder. “They miss each other something fierce.”
“I missed her too,” he groused. “I daresay we all did, but-”
Moffat’s only response was silence, but his look was telling enough that Will shut his mouth, and held his selfish opinions behind his teeth, where he was left to grapple for this own answers. He was.... Will didn’t rightly know what he was. He was disappointed—he had been looking forward to seeing his friend. And chagrinned that she had not so much as looked at him but once. And angry—angry at Captain Colyear for taking her away. And angry at Kent for going.
And doubly angry at himself for not understanding that that’s what it meant for people to be grown up and married. Kent and Captain Colyear were married. And they missed each other in a way that was different than the way Will had missed his friend. And very different from the way Kent might have missed Will. If she had missed him at all.
Kent had grown up, and now it seemed, it was time for Will to do the same.
But a miserable business growing up was. For the realization brought no comfort, only a tight heat building in his chest and throat, and burning behind his eyes. “Damn gunpowder,” he muttered as he swiped the back of his sleeve over his eyes, glad of the excuse.
Moffat, bless his leathery hide, said nothing of Will’s unseemly display of emotion, but cleared his throat and changed the topic while Will hauled his composure back into place.
“Now, I’m to take the supper in the cabin as well.” Moffat’s delight in his first invitation to the captain’s cabin was evident in the way he rubbed his hands together, chafing to set about getting himself ready. “So’s I’ll not be on deck with you, but I’ve had a word with Fisk, there, and he’ll have the slow match at the ready for you.”
By the time he was required to speak, Will had his hatches firmly battened down. “Good man, Moffat. Good man.”
Will had volunteered to be the officer of the deck during the supper, which Captain Colyear normally held across the changing of the watch, so the midshipman and officer of the deck coming off duty—namely Will—could partake of at least half of the meal, as could the officer going on duty—Ian Worth. It was a civilized, generous arrangement, and one Will was doubly grateful for today, because it meant that he would be on deck, and not have to look Kent in the eye after what he had seen in the doorway. Just the thought of that kiss brought a strange, uncomfortable heat scalding the surface of his skin.
And the only way he knew how to rid himself of his misery, was by applying himself to his work. So while the rest of the ship prepared for the changing of the watch, Will set up his small store of rockets—which Moffat had constructed so they could be fired out of a mortar gun set up beside the taffrail for the purpose. The gunner’s mate, Fisk, also brought up a tub filled with sand to hold the slow match, which Will would use to ignite the fuses.
“You’re set here then, sir?” Fisk, too, seemed anxious to be off. “Mr. Moffat said as I was to make myself scarce aforehand. But he also wanted me to remind you to make sure that mortar is aimed downwind, sir.”
Perhaps because he had already suffered one disappointment, the warning got Will’s back up. “Damn your insolent eyes, Fisk.” Will didn’t care if he sounded peevish and annoyed. Damn all their eyes. He was a blasted officer of the Royal Navy, acting lieutenant or no. He was no longer an infant midshipman who didn’t know his business from a hole in the hull. “I know what I’m doing.”
“Yessir.” Fisk tugged his forelock in deference, and left the quarterdeck to Will to stew over his misery in peace. Though not in peace and quiet.
A rising din wound its way up from the the small skylights that lit the captain’s cabin in the daytime. Will had made sure that they were left open, so he could follow the progress of the dinner below. The conversation was already lively, and Will found himself straining to pick Kent’s bright voice out amongst the other, deeper voices. And it wasn’t as if there were anything else for him to do—the deck was nearly empty. Audacious was riding safely in the calm, deep water of the bay just off the point where Captain Sir Hugh McAlden’s house stood, and the majority of the crew and been piped to their supper. The ship could be left to itself for the time being.
Will leaned his elbows on the rail, and let the warm velvet of the night wind flow across his skin, and try to blow away the uneasiness still tight in his lungs—the restlessness—the tiring mixture of confusion and frustration and hope that rose within him at the mere sound of her voice.
What had he expected? That she would come aboard, and take up her old place in the gun room with the rest of the officers? That she would be dressed in her old uniform, and take up her duties alongside Will? That she would have more time and affection for him than she would for her own husband?
Yes, actually. That was exactly what his immature brain had envisioned—an impossible day-dream—a fantasy conjured out of a heretofore undiscovered infatuation for his captain’s wife.
An infatuation he would have to conquer. Immediately. Or he would never again be able to look Kent—or his captain—in the eye. He would never again be able to look himself in the eye. He would have to grow up, damn it, just as she had.
Lord, but all this introspection was wearying. What he wouldn’t do for a nice, thoughtless four hours of sleep.
But sleep was not on his duty roster, because from below, the sound of Ian Worth scraping his chair back to stand recalled Will to this purpose. He scrambled for the slow match.
“Gentlemen,” Ian said exactly according to their plan, “I invite you to charge your glasses.”
Will could hear the company, to a man, push back their chairs and raise their glasses in salute.
“To Mrs. Colyear,” Worth said. “Welcome back!”
At that signal, Will touched the match to the first rocket fuse, and the quiet evening air was immediately rent by the awful tearing sound of the fuse burning away and then igniting with a deafening explosion. Away the rocket flew, arcing into the night sky, until, after the suspension of a moment, another dense, ear-shattering concussion shook the night, and sent a shower of bright white sparks cascading from the sky to sternward.
It was brilliant. No other word described the sight of the crystalline sparks of bright light, sharp against the night sky. No other word could contain all the joy and strange heartache he felt thinking of her, watching below, with her husband. Looking out from the stern gallery at the display Will had so painstakingly orchestrated for her. His gift to her.
But there were more rockets to ignite. Another touch of the slow match to the quick burning fuse, another pounding explosion of sound, and another rocket sprinkled the sky with twinkling light. Another concussion resounded in his chest as the charge rent the silent night. And then he began again.
Around him a cloud of sulfurous vapor rose, wreathing him in the smell of victory. The smell of triumph. The burning smell of....fire.
“For Lord’s sake. Will!”
He turned to find Kent, Mrs. Colyear, rushing across the deck toward the signal locker—the long, low piece of deck furniture behind him, abaft the mizzen, honeycombed with cubby holes where the signal flags were stored—which was bright with flame.
Will was poleaxed—for the longest moment, his feet felt as if they were nailed to the deck by the dread that only a seagoing man can feel at the knowledge that the deck beneath his feet, the island of his life, was aflame.
An errant spark must have lit upon the waxed canvas cover to the locker. And Kent—intrepid, two-steps-ahead-of-everyone-else Kent—was already stomping on the glowing sparks and tongues of flame with her big feet, and beating at the fire with her shawl. Her bloody shawl—which in another moment, was going to catch fire itself.
That thought galvanized Will into action. “Fire!” he called at the top of his lungs as he ran to the buckets of brine and sand stored just as they ought to be—thank bloody God—at the foot of the mizzen mast, before he dashed to her side to try and douse the growing fire licking its way up the lacquered, thin wooden partitions of the locker, consuming the brightly colored cloth flags as if they were so much dry tinder.
And before he could push Kent back, or warn her that her skirts were in danger of becoming just such tinder themselves, he heard her shocked cry. “Will!”
He would have pushed her down onto the deck to smother the flames crawling up the back of her skirts, but he was nearly knocked over himself when the Captain sprang up the quarterdeck ladder, and flew past him like a fury.
“Damn your eyes,” the captain roared as he barreled across the deck and swept Kent up, flaming skirt and all, and carried her away in his arms clear over the taffrail and straight into the sea.
But Will couldn’t allow himself to feel relief, and couldn’t go to the rail to see how they faired, because he had more pressing concerns. Like putting the rest of the damn fire out.
And Captain Colyear would see to Kent—nobody better.
The alarm had been raised throughout the ship, and the deck began to fill with a steady stream of men with buckets and dampened gunnysacks.
“Get a bucket over there,” Will directed, as he continued to swat and stamp on the flames, and in no time the orange blades of fire licking around the upper edges of the locker were finally doused.
As were all his hopes. With the fire under control, there was nothing left for it but the reckoning. A reckoning he would face like a man.
Will immediately went to the waist, where the Kent and the Captain—where Mrs. Colyear and the Captain—were being assisted aboard.
“Kent!” WIll gave her his hand to pull her up to the deck. “Are you all right.”
“Yes. Effectively doused.” She lifted the soaked ends of her blackened skirts with her characteristic laugh.
“I’m only a little charred around the edges.”
Captain Colyear was having none of Kent’s easy dismissal. “Mr. Jellicoe.” The captain’s flinty gaze fell squarely upon Will. “I can only assume I have you to thank for this unholy mess upon my quarterdeck.”
“Yes, sir.” If you fail, no excuse will ever be enough. Best to be straightforward then. “I am sorry, and I take full responsibility, sir.”
“Sorry? Damn your eyes, sir,” the captain roared. “You set my wife and my ship on fire.”
Technically, Kent had set herself on fire, but now was not the time to argue technicalities. Not when Captain Colyear, a man who never showed his emotions, was near flaming with anger. “Yes, sir. I apologize again, sir. That was not my intention.”
“And just what the hell was your bloody intention?”
Will’s eyes slid to Kent—to Mrs. Colyear. “To celebrate Christmas, sir. And honor Mrs. Colyear, sir.”
“You have a very curious sense of honor, sir,”—every one of the captain’s words dripped ire—“that would include setting your captain’s wife on fire! You-”
“Col.” Kent’s voice was quiet, but forceful enough to stop her husband. “It was an accident.”
But the captain had nothing of understanding left in him. Not even for his wife. “Madam, I warn you. Do not think to take this boy’s part in this matter-”
“No, Col,” she cut in calmly, but firmly again. “But in your cabin, if you please. I’m quite soaking wet. And growing cold.”
An almost animal sound of frustration and rage clawed it’s way out of the captain as he wrapped his arm around his wife to propel her into the relative privacy of his cabin.
Will would have turned back to assess the extent of the damage, and direct the clean-up efforts, but the captain growled, “Mr. Jellicoe. You as well,” and so Will followed.
Kent must have slipped into the captain’s sleeping cabin to get out of her wet clothes, because Will was left to face his captain—and the remains of the unfinished dinner—alone.
His captain’s voice was low and clipped. “What in hell did you think you were doing with fireworks, Mr. Jellicoe?”
Will came smartly to attention, and affixed his gaze on the ceiling beams—just as Kent had taught him. “A celebration, sir. I am sorry.”
The captain peeled off his soaked, dripping coat, and threw it on a chair. “And who else of my crew was foolish enough to assist you in this cock-brained scheme? Dance? Worth? Or Moffat?” The captain fixed him with an unforgiving, piercing eye. “I want the name of every man jack aboard this ship who had a hand in this idiotic scheme.”
The faces of Moffat and Fisk arose like ghosts of sins past before Will’s eyes, as did Charles Dance’s voice. He’s too good of a gunner to get caught up in your scrapes. “No one, sir. I take full responsibility.”
“You most certainly will take responsibility, Mr. Jellicoe. You most certainly will.” The captain turned to stare out the stern gallery windows into the night. “No one else? You made powder charge fireworks all on your own?”
“Yes, sir. I had a book.” That at least was entirely true.
Captain Colyear raised his brows in skepticism. “A book?”
“Yes, sir.” But lest blame fall where it shouldn’t, he added, “Moffat confiscated it from me.”
“I see. It gives me no pleasure, sir, to have to demote you back to midshipman, but I can only hope that you will spend your time returned to the cockpit in thinking seriously upon your sins.”
“Yes, sir.” He took his captain’s punishment without demur. It could have been much worse. Kent could have been hurt. Or Audacious could have been more badly damaged. Or the fireworks might not have worked.
With that sanguine thought, Will took his leave of the captain, and would have made his way down to the gunroom—where through the almost uncanny communication of the ship, his mess mates would no doubt already know of his fate—to clean out his cuddy.
But a voice from the dim, lantern-lit companionway stopped him. “Will.”
“Mrs. Colyear.” She was attired in a dry gown of some indeterminate color that was covered over by one of her husband’s summer weight coats. “You’re quite sure you’re not harmed?” Will asked. “I don’t think I could forgive myself if you-”
“No. No harm done. Or if so, only to my skirts. And I think you know how I feel about them.”
Against what was left of his better judgement, Will could feel himself smile. “I guess I do.”
“And I also wanted to make sure you were in no doubt of how I feel about the fireworks display, which from my husband’s absolute surprise at dinner—Oh, Will, I do wish you could have seen that—I collect was all your doing.”
This time, it felt good to take all the credit along with the blame. “Yes. Well, there may have been one or two others. Anvils, as it were, upon which the plan was hammered out.”
“Ah. Brilliant,” she said with such lovely, mischievous delight that, no matter the punishment, Will was glad he had done it. Glad for it all.
“You must know,” he said before he could stop himself. “You must know we did it all for you.”
Her smile never faltered, and her laughing gray eyes never left his, but something within her stilled into consciousness.
“I’m sorry,” he began, to cover the abominable heat rising up his neck. “I didn’t mean-”
“No.” She laid a hand upon his arm. “Will. I know. I know you did. And I am honored. Deeply, deeply, honored. It’s the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me.” And then she stepped back. Just enough. Just enough for him to understand that the space between them was unalterable. Permanent.
She saw it as well. “You’ve grown up.” Her smile was all in her eyes, clear and gray and full of understanding.
“Yes. I suppose I have.” He stepped back a fraction too, to show her it was true.
“But not too much, I hope.” She smiled and tipped her head sideways, in a way that nearly made his heart ache within his chest. “Not too much to still have some fun.”
“No, not too much for that. Just enough.” But more than enough for one day. “Happy Christmas, Kent.”
“Happy Christmas, Will.” She smiled, those clear gray eyes of hers twinkling with mischief. “Next year, do you think you can promise not to catch me on fire?”
Will could only laugh. “Oh, no. Next year, I’m sure I’ll do something even worse.”
But first, he was going to have to buy another book.
Thank you so much for visiting the blog today. If you enjoyed this little story, and are hopeful that young Will Jellicoe will get the happily ever after he deserves, you don’t have long to wait. His book, A BREATH OF SCANDAL will be released December 26, 2012.
Wishing you and yours a holiday season filled with comfort and joy.
Shockingly brash and scandalously independent, the Reckless Brides are boldly rewriting the rules of love and marriage—one smitten bachelor at a time…
In the game of kiss and tell, there are no rules…
THE LADY IS A KNOCKOUT
Forced by her family into an engagement with a man she can never abide, Antigone Preston knows only a scandal will save her from a loveless marriage. But knocking a man down to the ballroom floor with her fists brings dangerous consequences. She may have ruined her reputation, but now she’s endangered her heart…
THE OFFICER IS A GENTLEMAN
The son of an earl and a career navy man, Captain William Jellicoe has no interest in the frivolities of London—and even less in the institution of marriage. But there’s something steering him toward Antigone. He has never met anyone as brazen and unconventional as…himself. But will he risk it all for a woman who still has the breath of scandal hot on her lips?
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