A knock came at Shaw’s cabin door. “It’s Potter, sir.”
“Enter,” Shaw called, pulling off his worn shirt. According to the calendar it was May, autumn where the Nemesis lay in the Southern hemisphere. By God, it didn’t feel like any autumn he’d experienced before. And as someone who didn’t particularly like huddling around a spitting hearth while snow blew outside, it was damned pleasant, if on occasion overly warm.
He glanced at the box on his shelf where he’d placed Sommerset’s mirror. Taking a possibly-cursed item on board a ship was mad, but at the same time he’d felt...rudderless since Simon’s death. The task the duke had given him at least gave him a sense of purpose, something he could keep in mind when he couldn’t stand considering his murky future for another damned minute. A debt of honor – it might be that for Sommerset, but for him it was very nearly the last piece of floating timber on the sea.
“Captain. Shoes so polished I could shave in ‘em.” The midshipman set the dress shoes on a chair.
“My thanks. Help me with this, will you?” Indicating his formal dress coat, Bradshaw pulled on a clean, freshly-pressed shirt.
“Aye. So where d’you think Admiral Dolenz will be sending us?” Potter asked, holding up the dark blue coat with its gold epaulets and white edging.
“From the supplies I would imagine Tahiti, or perhaps Manila.”
“No chance he’ll send us on to the East Indies?”
“A very slight chance. The Dutch do seem to be misbehaving. From what I’ve read, however, the ladies in Tahiti wear fewer clothes than the ones in India.” His orders hadn’t spoken of anything specific other than Australia, so whatever Sommerset had seemed to know was only an assumption. A good one, or he would have detoured to put in at Tahiti during the voyage west. But something was afoot, and he still had enough time to be willing to let it play out. Shaking himself, he grinned. “If they wear anything at all.”
“By God, I hope we’re off to Tahiti, then.”
“I’ll mention your preference to the admiral.”
The midshipman chuckled. “By the way, Dr. Howard inquired whether he was to join you for dinner this evening.”
Bradshaw hid his frown. Of the one hundred eighty-three men presently assigned to his ship, the one he would have preferred to do without was Dr. Christopher Howard. Considering that Howard’s older brother was the Earl of Hemswich, however, leaving him behind at Southampton had been out of the question. And since technically Howard ranked higher in Society than he did, leaving him out of any social function was equally difficult. If nothing else, it made the absence of Simon Griffeth even more painful than it already was. “Yes, he’s to join me,” he said after a moment.
“I believe he’s dressing already, actually.”
“Not a bit surprised.” He finished buttoning his waistcoat, and buckled on his ceremonial sword as Potter brushed any wrinkles from the back of his coat. “Until Gerard returns from his...tailor’s appointment in town, Newsome has the command. And tell Everett he’d best get that woman out of the bosun’s storeroom before Dobbs discovers them and has him strung up from the yardarm by his balls.”
Potter cleared his throat. “I’ll see to it, Captain. Tailor’s appointment. I had one o’ those day before yesterday. Cost me three shillings, that bunter did.”
Retrieving his hat and the carefully-wrapped set of books he’d brought along just for this evening, Bradshaw left his cabin. Giving the brass plaque of Poseidon nailed to the wall a knock with his knuckles, he emerged into the late afternoon sunlight to find Dr. Howard already waiting for him.
As a civilian Christopher could dress as he pleased, and at the moment he wouldn’t have looked out of place in London’s finest ballroom. Of course Bradshaw, in his dress blues with the fancy braiding on the sleeves and his peaked captain’s hat also looked rather splendid, if he said so himself. He settled the hat on his head.
“Are we hiring a hack?”
Bradshaw shook his head. “The admiral’s sending a coach.”
“Thank God. From the look of things, I thought it might be a hay wagon.”
He rather liked the primitive feel of these new settlements on the very edges of civilization, himself. His first voyage to Barbados in the West Indies, he’d ridden a donkey to accompany his captain to greet the local chieftain. With a grin and a salute to Newsome he descended the steep gangplank and made for the waiting coach.
After a fortnight in port he’d regained his land legs, and mostly he was anxious to discover what the Admiralty meant for him to do. As Howard took the opposite seat and they rolled down the dirt road heading for the hillside on which Admiral Dolenz’s home perched, he allowed himself the luxury of speculation.
Under a succession of captains on a succession of ships, he’d fought Bonaparte, skirmished with the Spanish, sunk a pirate or two and survived rounding the Cape of Good Hope on three different occasions. As captain himself, he’d escorted a trio of supply ships to Belize and back again, and he’d patrolled the Mediterranean against renegade French forces attempting to fund a second escape for their Emperor. He’d written the final chapter of that duty with the interception of the infamous Revanche.
That should have set him up nicely for more killing – Dutch or Spanish pirates roaming through the maze of Pacific islands- most likely. He was therefore rather surprised to be out in the middle of the wilderness. And thankful for it. At the worst he would be escorting supply ships from Port Jackson to Tahiti and back, which at the moment he preferred though he could never admit to that aloud.
“How many of these people are convicts?” Dr. Howard asked, glancing through the coach window at the crowded streets outside, a handkerchief over his nose and mouth.
“Some of them. Don’t worry. I’ll protect you.”
“I only hope I don’t get fleas. I’ve never seen so many damned goats and sheep, even in the Cotswolds.”
Bradshaw eyed him. “Just why are you here?”
“Your ship needed a surgeon.”
“Yes, and you’re sterling at lancing blisters. What I mean to say is, you’re the Earl of Hemswich’s brother. Why are you a physician, and why are you serving as a surgeon on a Naval ship?”
Christopher Howard shifted, but kept his place at the very edge of the seat as though he feared that fleas might even have invaded the admiral’s coach. “My father detested the clergy, and only a fool who can’t do better joins the military. No offense.”
“None taken.” Arrogant git.
“As for why I’m here, halfway around the world, that’s a private matter.”
“Ah.” It wasn’t as private as he’d like to think; Bradshaw happened to know that both daughters of the Marquis of Bregins had gone to take the air in the country at the same time, just before Hemswich had arranged for his brother to earn his passage out of Britain. Apparently Dr. Howard couldn’t keep his cock in his breeches, or a French condom on his cock.
Shaw enjoyed female company immensely himself, but he took precautions. At the least, he didn’t believe in shirking responsibility. Though after eleven months of enforced celibacy, responsibility and common sense were beginning to plummet on his list. Even the soiled doves who hung about the docks here waiting for sailors were beginning to look appealing. Clearly he needed to shake off his melancholy, reach Tahiti, and then decide what the devil he wanted to do with the remainder of his life.
“I could ask why you’re here at Port Jackson instead of fending off the Dutch in the East Indies,” Hammond commented into the silence.
Shaw shook himself. “I go where I’m sent. As do we both, I suppose.”
“The difference being, not afraid to return to London.”
“Bugger off, Carroway.”
“Captain Carroway. You’re on my ship, if you’ll recall.”
“I recall. Captain.”
Thankfully the drive was fairly short, and the coach turned up the long, straight path to the top of the hill before it stopped in front of a broad-fronted sprawl of a white building. The portico stretched the entire width of the house, evenly-spaced pillars lending the residence a classical Roman feel. Only the large, open windows on the ground and upper floors spoke of the tropics and the evening trade winds.
“Now this looks more civilized,” Dr. Howard commented, following him to the ground and toward the open double front doors.
“What did you expect?” Bradshaw returned, nodding to the butler and handing over his hat and gloves. “Blue face paint and fur loincloths? The admiral is English, and the Duke of Radcliffe’s grandson.”
“All I know is that since we’ve docked I’ve seen more dirty faces, second-hand clothing, and filth than I ever saw in England.”
“And goats and sheep. You mentioned that, as well, I believe.” Clearly Dr. Howard hadn’t spend much time outside of Mayfair. Unpleasant and given to whining or not, however, the doctor was still the most qualified of any on board to bind broken bones and sew closed cuts. Therefore, he needed to be tolerated.
“This way, gentlemen,” the butler said, leading them up the stairs.
The servant stopped just outside a set of closed doors. Taking a breath, he pushed them open and stepped through. “Captain Bradshaw Carroway and Dr. Christopher Howard,” he announced, and moved aside.
Considering that they were being announced, more than Admiral Dolenz had to be inside the drawing room. Glancing sideways to be certain that Howard wasn’t going to trample him to be inside first, Bradshaw stepped into the room.
For a heartbeat he thought himself back in Mayfair, in the drawing room of one of the great houses there. A large crystal chandelier hung from the center of the ceiling and made the candlelight sparkle. Scattered about the room beneath it, two dozen ladies and gentleman were gathered, all dressed in the finest silks and linens.
“Good evening, Captain, Dr. Howard.”
Admiral Dolenz came forward, and Bradshaw straightened to give his best salute. His orders had already been decided, of course, but good manners couldn’t hurt. “Admiral. Thank you for the invitation.”
“I would ordinarily say that proper Society company is rare here at Port Jackson, but as you can see, at the moment we are overwhelmed with it.” The admiral gestured at the room around him.
A tall, well-dressed man stepped up. “We were on our way to Manila, but our boat br–“
”Our ship,” a female voice interrupted, and a pretty blonde-haired lady wrapped her arm around the gentleman’s. “The Halcyon. It ran aground on a reef. We’ve been stranded here for nearly a month, and the captain’s said it will be another four weeks before the repairs are completed and we can hope to resume our journey.”
“That’s a shame,” Dr. Howard put in, brushing past Bradshaw. “Manila is poorer for not having you present.”
Just barely Bradshaw refrained from rolling his eyes. “Are all of you from the Halcyon?” he asked.
“Not all of us, Captain.” An older man rose from his seat by the window and walked forward to offer his hand. “Joseph Ponsley,” he said. “Late from India.”
That name sounded familiar. “Sir Joseph Ponsley?”
“Yes, indeed. You’ve read my book on deciduous plant species, then? Or perhaps my climate and rainfall dissertation.”
“My younger brother has. Both of them. I’m...not much of a reader, generally.”
A faint female snort of derision caught his ear, but with the crowd milling around him, he couldn’t tell from where it had come. Perhaps he’d misheard.
“It’s a rather narrow field of interest, I admit,” Sir Joseph returned with a smile.
Shaking the botanist’s hand, Bradshaw forced a grin. “Thank you for saying that.” He took the paper-wrapped package from beneath his arm and handed it to the admiral. “You, however, are a reader, sir, I believe.”
Admiral Dolenz opened the package. “Nicely done, Captain,” he said after a moment, turning to the title page of the top book. “A first edition of Rob Roy.”
“All three volumes,” Shaw added, silently thanking his brother Robert for being a voracious reader.
“I suppose now you may sit at my elbow for dinner, then.”
“Where would I have been otherwise?”
The admiral sent him a dark look. “In the kitchen, very likely.” He winked.
That settled that, at least. The admiral did not know what his daughter had been up to in his absence. Thank God. Feeling a bit easier, Shaw accepted a glass of Madeira from a footman and went to mingle.
Dr. Howard apparently knew at least half the admiral’s guests, and considering that a large number of them seemed to be displaced English aristocrats, Bradshaw wasn’t surprised. As for himself, he recognized two of them by name, while three others looked familiar. The remainder of the guests were more than likely recent residents of Port Jackson, because the talk seemed to center around London gossip – though how much of it remained pertinent after better than a year, he had no idea. Apparently old gossip was better than no gossip at all.
The butler rang a gong and announced dinner, and Bradshaw found himself seated at Admiral Dolenz’s right elbow. He held the chair on his other side as a petite young woman with brass-streaked chestnut hair came to stand beside him. “Bradshaw Carroway,” he said, pushing her chair in as she sat.
“Zephyr Ponsley,” she returned, holding up her wine glass for a footman to fill. “I haven’t written anything, so you needn’t worry about not having read it.”
“So you were the one snorting at me before,” he commented, reaching for a slice of fresh-baked bread.
“Was I? You must have said something distasteful, then.”
This chit didn’t seem to be interested in the mountain of gossip still going round the table. “I suppose honesty can be distasteful.”
“Perhaps there are some things you shouldn’t be honest about. The fact that you don’t read, for example, cannot be much to brag about.”
He glanced sideways at her. She was pretty enough, he supposed, with a glow to her skin that said she’d spent time out of doors. She had breasts of just the right size to fill a man’s hands, and an appetizing curve to her hips. Her mouth, however, seemed to be something else entirely. “Did I shoot your dog or something?” he asked aloud.
“Is that something I should expect?” she returned in the same tone. “You seem to be both ignorant and bloodthirsty.”
“My point being,” Bradshaw commented, finding himself rather amused by the argument, “you’re quite unpleasant. I’m attempting to determine whether you speak to everyone you’ve just met in the same manner, or if I’ve been singled out for special treatment.”
Gray eyes crinkled briefly. “In my experience, people who don’t read have small minds, leaving me with very little to say to them.”
“And yet, you’ve already spoken volumes to me.” He wasn’t mistaken; she was enjoying lambasting him. Which as far as he was concerned meant he could respond in kind. “I didn’t say that I don’t read. I said that I’m not much of a reader. There is a difference. I tend to be occupied with other things.” He cleared his throat. “I do read ship’s charts, for example. I even keep a log.”
She opened her mouth, then closed it again as footmen brought around the baked fish and potatoes. “I read everything. The complete works of Captain Cook, for example.”
Bradshaw reflected that the last time he’d attempted an intellectual argument with anyone, he’d lost twenty quid and awakened in Dover with his left foot encased in dried plaster. Damned Simon Griffeth. Still, it had been an entertaining evening, with a kind of joy and exhilaration to it that he’d missed. And arguing with this chit seemed more...personal than intellectual. “Those, I’ve read,” he said aloud.
“Captain,” the pretty blonde woman said from across the table, “do tell us about your ship.”
“With pleasure. The Nemesis is a one thousand seventy ton frigate. She launched in 1808 and carries forty-six cannons, most of them eighteen pounders. She’s outfitted for a crew complement of three hundred twenty, but we’re currently carrying only one hundred eighty-three.”
“That’s a great many numbers,” the lady said with a giggle.
The gentleman seated beside her put his hand over hers. “Miss Jones isn’t overly fond of numbers, unless they are for counting the waltz.”
“Why is your crew so small?” Miss Jones pursued.
“With Bonaparte defeated,” Admiral Dolenz took up, “a great many soldiers and sailors have found themselves unemployed. Troops cost money the government would rather spend elsewhere.”
“If I might ask, what brings you to this side of the world, Miss Jones?” Bradshaw asked, mostly because the admiral had seen fit to invite her.
“My uncle – my and Stewart’s uncle,” she amended, gesturing at the shortest of the men, a wispy fellow with thinning blond hair, “is the head of exports for Sheffling in the Philippines. I know how gauche trade is,” she said, flipping her hand, “but he’s really quite wealthy, and he begged us to come and visit him.”
“We decided to make a Grand Tour of it,” the fellow beside her, Lord John Fenniwell, if he remembered correctly, took up. “Because I couldn’t bear four years without Miss Jones. Could I, Frederica?”
She giggled again. “No, you couldn’t.”
Fenniwell said something else that made the rest of his cronies laugh. In the midst of the noise, Miss Ponsley leaned closer to Bradshaw. “I think Lord John couldn’t bear to be without Miss Jones’ uncle’s gauche fortune,” she whispered.
Bradshaw grinned, then stifled the expression again. “Are we allied, now? I thought we were deadly enemies.”
“I’m still assessing,” she replied, a rather compelling sparkle in her gray eyes. “You aren’t what I expected a naval captain to be like.”
“Well, before the bloodshed begins again, may I say that Zephyr’s not precisely a traditional English name? How did you come by it?”
“My mother wanted to name me Patricia, but my father said that a ‘warm following breeze’ was always the reason he was able to go the places he’d gone. So they compromised. I was Zephyr Patricia Ponsley to my father, and Patricia Zephyr Ponsley to my mother. Now that my mother is gone, I’m Zephyr.”
“So now your father has a warm following breeze with him wherever he goes.”
A smile quirked her lips. “I suppose he does.”
“Your father said you were arrived here from India. Are you on your way back to England?” He had several pieces of correspondence, and while there were captains currently docked at Port Jackson who would carry them for him, Zephyr Ponsley and her father were more likely to be able to hand deliver anything to his family. And Robert, at least, would be forever in his debt if he managed to arrange a meeting between his younger brother and Sir Joseph Ponsley. As far as he was concerned, botany had saved Robert’s life. Or at least his sanity.
“Oh, no,” she replied. “Papa was commissioned by the Royal Society to do a botany study here in the Pacific. This is our starting point.”
“That sounds fascinating,” he lied, more to keep her smiling and chatting with him than because he meant it. A pretty chit who enjoyed bantering and who had more on her mind than earning a quick shilling – tonight might well prove to be much more interesting than he’d originally expected. He wondered where she and her father were lodging.
“Tell me, Captain,” she continued, “what do you do while you’re at sea and you’re not reading?”
He shifted in his chair. “Generally I tell the ship which way to go, and if I see a storm coming, I make certain some of the sails are taken in. In the evenings, I make notes about where we’ve gone that day, and I walk the ship to be sure it hasn’t sprung any leaks.”
Admiral Dolenz burst out laughing. “That, Captain, is likely the most honest description of shipboard life I have ever heard.”
Bradshaw had actually forgotten the admiral was sitting there. “Thank you, sir. I did leave out one or two minor items for the sake of brevity.”
“You’re fairly witty for someone who isn’t literary,” Miss Ponsley conceded.
“And you’re fairly free with your condemnations for someone I only met twenty minutes ago.”
To his surprise, she sighed and nodded. “I suppose I am. In all honesty I’ve spent more time with scientists and botanists and researchers than with an members of the beau monde. Pretty words and unmeant flattery is just...wasteful.”
“Don’t let the admiral’s other guests hear you say that.”
She moved a breath closer to him. “Before you arrived I had to spend twenty minutes listening to them gossip about some unfortunate young lady who thought she could play the pianoforte but actually couldn’t. I nearly went out and jumped off the balcony.”
Clearly Zephyr Ponsley was not a typical Society chit. And while he was supremely accustomed to moving in those circles himself, he more than understood her cynicism. If he were to choose one of the silk-draped lovelies present to share his bed tonight, it would have been the warm following breeze on his right. He liked a bit of fire in a chit, and Zephyr Ponsley seemed to have enough to burn his fingers. And she was genuine, a rare quality for either gender in his experience.
Finally, an hour after the ladies had left the table and the men had done their version of gossiping, the admiral climbed to his feet. “Gentlemen, shall we rejoin the ladies? Or rather, perhaps you would all be so kind as to do so. Captain Carroway and I will join you in a moment.”
Bradshaw followed Admiral Dolenz into a small study that overlooked the harbor far below. The Nemesis was easy to see; she wasn’t the largest ship in the harbor, but if he said so himself, she did have the most elegant lines. And far more cannon ports than anything else in sight.
“You’ve been patient,” the admiral noted, sitting behind his desk.
“I’ve had nearly eleven months to speculate about why the Navy wanted me out here on the far side of the world,” Bradshaw replied, taking the seat opposite despite the fact that he would rather be pacing. “Pirates, perhaps?”
“There has been some piracy in these waters, as a matter of fact,” the admiral conceded. “Spanish and Dutch origin, mostly, though we don’t know yet how much – if any of it – is government sanctioned. And the French have been prowling about lately, as well.”
Stifling a smile, Bradshaw sat back in the chair. The Duke of Sommerset had been up-to-date with his list of troublemakers. If all went well, the Nemesis would find its way to Tahiti within the month. “So we’ll be patrolling? Pirate hunting?”
Bradshaw opened and closed his mouth again, that unpleasant hesitation touching him again for the first time all evening. “No? The East Indies, then?” he pursued, keeping his expression even.
Admiral Dolenz pulled a paper from a drawer and pushed it across the polished mahogany surface of the desk. “I’ve been told this is a new era,” he went on. “And a new sort of fight for supremacy.”
And another damned useless war fought over borderless oceans, no doubt. His gut jolted unpleasantly, but as Bradshaw turned the paper to face him, surprise shoved his uncertainty overboard.“I – Is this a jest?” he asked. “The Nemesis is a ship of the line, Admiral. A fighting ship.”
“And a damned fine one, with a damned fine captain, from all reports. That’s why you’re here.”
Shaw read through the paper again. It was definitely unexpected. And in a sense, it could be precisely what he’d been looking for. Or it could be the largest disaster since the one Bonaparte had found at Waterloo. “It’s better than whaling,” he said aloud, knowing something was expected of him.
Dolenz smiled, nodding. “That, it is.” He rose again. “Join us in the drawing room. I’ve even hired a string orchestra. And Captain, you were highly recommended for this venture. I have no doubt that you will perform your duty to the utmost.”
Standing, Bradshaw saluted. “Aye, aye, Admiral.”
Little in his career had gone as he’d expected; he was too young to have made admiral during the Peninsular War, and now the odds of being promoted had shrunk to almost nothing. His only chance would have been protecting the interests of the East India Company from Dutch interference, and he wasn’t certain he had the stomach for that, any longer.
He’d been recommended for this duty. Shaw gazed out the window down at the harbor once more. It smacked of Sommerset, in fact, though in that case the only way the orders could have reached Port Jackson in time to meet him was if he’d carried them here himself aboard the Nemesis. Hm. If this was all to see a mirror delivered, it seemed a damned lot of trouble to go to. Well, at least with this voyage, he had a chance to see bare-breasted chits, and he wouldn’t be hunting down supposed enemies because of poorly managed politics.
Aside from all that, it was likely a fortunate thing that he hadn’t already set himself to seduce the warm, following breeze – especially considering that, according to his orders, in two days he would be sailing away with her father to go collect plants.
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