April 25, 1780
“You lost her?”
A cold wind blew outside Tavendish Manor, driving drizzle against the paned glass, but inside the library the fire in the large hearth crackled merrily. The room was warm and lit quite brightly by the numerous candles that nevertheless cast dancing shadows here and about.
Elliott stared incredulously at the bedraggled couple that had thrust themselves upon his peaceful midnight, having sprung up from the darkness as if conjured by a witch.
The woman wept softly, miserable in wet, torn, and stained clothing. She could barely speak through her chattering teeth, and Elliott pulled on a bell.
“Yes, my lord?” the butler sniffed.
He gestured toward the woman. “Take Mrs. Mocksling here and have one of the maids settle her in a room, draw her a hot bath and give her something to eat.”
He bowed. “Very good, my lord.”
Elliott turned to Mr. Mocksling once the woman was out of earshot. He was just as wet and torn and stained as his wife, but he was the male and thus Elliott would expect him to bear his discomfort with equanimity. Yet the man had not been the one to present them, nor had he spoken a word in the quarter hour since they had knocked on the door.
“How did you lose your daughter?” Elliott asked, wondering if he should be furious or jump for joy.
“We were beset by pirates,” he said dully, as if it were a tale oft repeated. “They took her to crew.”
“What pirate would impress a young gentlewoman to crew?”
“You would not believe it if I told you.”
“Tell me anyway,” he snapped.
The tale was slow to unfold. The voyage had been difficult. The captain had been incompetent, losing their way several times (and if a land merchant could discern this, by God, a sea captain certainly should be able to). The mother had been seasick. The crew had been ogling the daughter (that should convince my lord of the truth of his description of her), and the father had been hard-pressed to keep her secluded and protected.
“Yes, yes, yes,” Elliott said with great impatience. “And you were overcome by pirates and set down somewhere down south and now have walked hundreds of miles to get here for what purpose?”
“The captain sent us. She was—”
Elliott’s head snapped up. “She? The captain of the pirate vessel was a she?”
“Yes. Yes, I realize how unbelievable that is. Yet she was unmistakably female after she removed her shirt and gave it to Georgina—” Georgina?! “—but one would be excused for not noticing the woman’s . . . generous bosom . . . for all the scars. I have never seen such and God willing, I never will again. Gave her name as Captain Fury, but of course, that is most likely not her name.”
“Nay,” Elliott whispered, gaping at Mocksling, then he began to chuckle. That turned into a laugh. Then a rolling guffaw.
The man looked at him as if he were mad and indeed, he might be—mad with joy.
“Ah . . . ” Elliott began, but then laughed again and wiped tears from his eyes. “Tell me of your voyage, then. Other than being a bit damp, ’twould seem no harm has befallen you.”
“We had duties,” he muttered as if bewildered. “We worked hard—menial tasks—but were not unduly molested.”
Elliott’s eyebrow rose. “Unduly?”
The man gulped. “The captain did seem a mite put out with the missus and, ah, chastened her.”
Chastened? Elliott wondered that he was not more outraged at his wife having received a lashing and then been set to tend all the personal needs of the women aboard.
Or, perhaps, ’twas no wonder at all. Elliott waved a hand. “Get on with it.”
“There were other oddities. When the captain addressed us she called us Man and Woman. I don’t believe she knew our names, but then she seemed not to remember we were there most of the time after she had dispensed with us. There were many women aboard, perhaps three dozen. Quite a few children, boys and girls alike, who also worked hard. I believe the youngest was nine.” He paused. “There was also an older woman aboard who served as the chief purser, but everyone deferred to her no matter what, and sometimes even the captain herself. She was called Officer Mary.”
At Elliott’s noncommittal hum, the man continued, “We sat for a time in the water when the wind didn’t blow, there with two other pirate ships. We had only just been captured a few days before, and we were ordered below for near the duration.” He sniffed. “There was music and dancing and much drunkenness and—and—and—debauchery. We were not put out to stay belowdecks, for a certainty.”
Elliott nearly grinned. “Odd. Anything else?”
Mocksling gulped and stared down into his empty glass. “There was one other thing. The day after we were taken aboard. She flogged a man who confronted her in defense of the missus. And made us watch.”
“I would expect no less.”
“He nearly died from his lashes.”
“How many did she give him?”
“Thirty-nine. With a cat.”
“I see nothing untoward in that.” The man’s mouth dropped open, but Elliott ignored that. “What of Georgina? You’ve said little of her.”
“She . . . ah . . . she took to it easily, but then, she was not, in fact, impressed, as we were.” He cleared his throat. “She was given the choice of marriage to you or a life aboard a pirate ship. She chose piracy.”
He grinned and looked away, rubbing his mouth. He’d love to see George’s mischievous little face when she learned of it.
What do you want now, Captain Harmless?
“I do not see why you would find that amusing, my lord,” Mr. Mocksling said stiffly.
“No, you wouldn’t,” Elliott muttered, still chuckling. And for his further amusement, he asked, “Was Georgina, ah, taken advantage of in any way?”
The man flushed bright red. “Ah, no, I cannot say she was . . . taken advantage of.”
It was all Elliott could do not to burst out laughing. “Excellent. Well, retire for the night, Mocksling. I shall send a message to Bancroft on the morrow. Do not fear. We shall find her.”
“She does not want to be found.”
“Well then! Good.” The father stared at him blankly. “She has courage.”
“She is intractable,” the man grumbled. “An incorrigible hoyden, riding astride, running harum-scarum about the countryside with all manner of boys and not a female friend in sight.”
Elliott’s eyebrow arched high. “Ah, so you wanted to be rid of her anyway.”
“If you were commissioned with her—”
“Which is precisely my role in this union, no? Taming your daughter for you? Bedding her would have been the . . . benefit?”
“She is quite beautiful, my lord.”
The man’s neck was small. It wouldn’t take much for Elliott to snap it. “God only knows a pirate ship’s the best place for a girl like that. Now get out of my sight before I toss you out.”
Elliott sat for a while after Mocksling had scurried out, staring vacantly into the flames and attempting to adjust himself to the fact that he had never been betrothed at all.
It didn’t matter that they’d lost Georgina; the contract had been fraudulently made. They would have planned to dress the girl up in the height of Parisian fashion, powder her face and hair until she would have appeared to be anything but adolescent. She would have been instructed not to disclose her age to him—ever.
Admiral Lord Hylton had made this match, hoping only to assist Elliott in his new duties and assist his distant cousin Mocksling at once. He would not be happy about this turn of events, as he was an honorable man and above such petty machinations. He particularly would not have attempted to deceive Elliott, for there was no gain in it for either him or Elliott.
Then again, it was Hylton who had ordered Kitteridge command the pay fleet, an unparalleled honor. No matter the man was dead by Elliott’s own hand, the admiral’s order still sat as a bitter betrayal upon his soul. So who could say what he knew or didn’t and what his motives were?
Once again, Elliott was without a countess or prospect of one, but he certainly had all the time in the world to find one.
I would give up the sea for a faithful husband and a home . . . I would do it now did you ask.
Fury was out of the question.
A woman who had such a voracious appetite for men yet had not borne a child in fifteen years was thoroughly unacceptable. It did not follow that the use of caps, sponges, elixirs, and French letters—all at once—could be completely foolproof. And he did not believe that Fury could be that diligent every single time, considering she was not prepared for his midnight climb through her stern window nor the night he had taken her with stays. Thus, being so abruptly unbetrothed gained him nothing. He might as well run off with her and be done with it.
God only knew he had considered it often enough.
“Hell’s bells,” he whispered as he sat up and bent over, propping his elbows on his knees and letting his hair slide out of its queue and sweep the floor.
He was surprised to hear his mother’s voice in the doorway, much less laden with such concern, considering their last conversation—the one regarding Sophie’s future—had been less than cordial.
“It appears,” he said heavily, “that Camille is not the only one needing a match.”
“Well! Good! Then you may have your American privateer.”
“Not, and still fulfill my duty.”
“Duty,” she spat. “And what were your thoughts on that when you released Sophie from hers, I’d like to know.”
“Sophie’s only true responsibilities are those she chooses to bear,” he said briskly, going to the doorway to push her wheeled chair into the room next to his seat. He snatched a throw off the sofa and draped it over her lap, tucking it carefully around her legs before settling himself back into his own cushions. “What does it gain the family if she weds according to custom?”
“A good name.”
“Aye, because the Tavendish name is so pristine.” He smirked at the flush staining her cheeks. “As to my own, consider this,” he went on. “If I were to cast off any one of the many duties I have—family, home, security, country, whatever it may be—for one thing I want, what would make me stay the course for any of my other duties and not abandon everything within my realm of responsibility?”
She sniffed. “You would never do such a thing.”
“You think not? Aye, because I have always done my duty and have given you no reason to think I will not continue to do so. Here is the truth of it, Mother: I cannot have Fury and my family, too.”
She looked at him then, her expression tender and thoughtful. She grasped his hand. “Eli, whatever lies between us, I am still your mother. You try to hide it, but you are sad and lonely, and it is more than I can bear, because you have never been given to melancholy. Listen to me: We can find a way for you and your Fury to be together. There are always ways to get what you want.”
“But you do not consider the cost, which, in this case, far outweighs the gain.”
“Tell me what cost there would be to having your privateer in this family!”
“You would not gain a privateer, Mother,” he said quietly. “You would lose your son in truth, not just by metaphor.”
Her long silence was deafening. “I . . . don’t understand.”
“I would leave and never return.”
Her face clouded with confusion. “Why can you not bring her here to be your countess?”
“For several reasons, the first of which is that she is nine and twenty without having had any children, which would make the exercise entirely moot.”
“Well, if she is not wed, of course she has no children.”
“Mother!” Elliott said, exasperated. “She is a pirate! She is the daughter of one of King George’s sanctioned brigands, who raised her on the deck of a pirate ship on the Barbary Coast. Marriage has nothing to do with why a woman has no children when she has the same restrictions on her behavior as any male pirate, which is to say, none.”
“Oh,” she whispered, utterly shocked.
“Add to that the fact that she is not merely unwed—she is a widow.”
The countess gulped.
“I don’t want Fury here, Mother. Everything I love about her would waste away in the midst of such perfection and leisure until there was nothing left. Aye, she would come here if I asked, but she would sacrifice her soul in the doing and feel an ever-increasing burden of being unable to conceive. What good is that to either of us?”
“How do you want her?” she asked in a small voice.
“In America,” he said flatly. “In the wild. Carving out a life together. I know the exact spot, too. Five hundred miles inland from the coast, along the Cuyahoga River. A thousand acres of virgin land with two wide, clear streams running through a valley, and hundreds of thousands of wildflowers between them, begging to be plowed.”
He looked down at her. Her face was unnaturally pale and her blue eyes big in her small face.
“You have been there?”
“Aye, I went there. Rathbone covered my absence for three months whilst I took a few of my men and found the spot. Then we stayed there and lived off the land, talked to the Indians, who, when we proved we were no threat, were in sympathy with our goals. It is what I have wanted since I was a child but had not the courage to defy Father and run off as I should have. I had never expected to become the earl—why would I?”
“When did you do that?” she whispered.
“Before Casco Bay. I was finished with the Navy and I had saved just enough to fund the venture. I could no longer fight for England when I longed for the freedom I could find on the American frontier. I intended that cruise to be my last—to come home, gather my things, say my adieux, find a wife, and head west before the war broke out in earnest.” He laughed bitterly. “And oh, aye, it was my last cruise, wasn’t it? Trussed up on a prison ship and taken to Newgate straight away. After that, I simply wanted to be buried there after my execution.”
“Elliott!” she cried.
“Now you see my dilemma, Mother,” he said quietly. “I want a new life that includes Fury, who promised me she would leave the sea and go wherever I went as long as I was faithful to her and gave her a home. But she needs so much more than that. She needs a purpose, she needs work, and in Ohio, I could give her that, too.
“So I can stay here and do my duty by my family—which is not without its own cost independent of my happiness—or I can abandon you to pursue my own desires for the first time in my accursed life. But I cannot simply disappear because the Crown would never believe me dead and thus never relinquish the title to Niall.” He paused to see her staring into the fire, tears in her eyes.
“Fury paid a great price for her freedom—nearly her life, in fact. Twice. She was willing to, to gain that end. But she lived through it to see her independence and she revels in it. The Americans, likewise, what they are willing to sacrifice for the hope of independence, no matter how dim. Their failure is all but guaranteed, and when they lose, Britain will utterly destroy them for their little tantrum. But they will have paid the price to simply attempt it.
“So tell me, Mother. What cost are you willing to bear to see me settled with the woman I love and the life I have wanted since I was a child? What cost are you willing to bear to free me from my duty? Is my freedom worth the possible destruction of the entire family should our conspiracy come to light? The villagers? The tenants? The boarders? No. My piracy has put all of you in enough jeopardy, but they—you—share the rewards, which are great, and thus, the culpability. By contrast, there is no gain for any of you for my freedom. If I am here and our conspiracy is exposed, I can take you all and flee, but without me, you will have no recourse. I will not abandon you now.”
She put a trembling hand to her mouth.
“I pray you, Mother, do not scoff at my citation of duty again. Do not again castigate Father for his belief in Fate. I do not believe in Fate or God’s will or anything like it, but I do believe in responsibility. And choice. And consequences. And birthrights. But most of all, I believe in weighing the cost. Nothing can be had without a price. Even a choice between two good things comes at the cost of the thing not chosen. And I say this, Mother, to make you understand that you chose to do your duty all these years because you enjoyed it, not because it was your duty. Look to Lucille and see yourself reflected in her life, her joy in her children and the estate. You should count that a great blessing.
“I made a choice not to defy Father and leave for America, my own land, my own freedom. My own happiness. Aye, I was very young and I didn’t trust my own judgment and I did not want to disappoint him. I let fear rule me. But I have paid for that choice, that fear, hundreds of times over. The family, likewise, has suffered for my obedience, bankrupting the estate for my acquittal, throwing our dependents in poverty for it. And I know Father paid for it dearly, fifteen years living with heartache and regret.”
Her head was bowed. The throw across her legs was sprouting dark spots where her tears fell.
He paused and took a deep breath, then continued softly, “There are things in this world that strip men of choice. Lightning. Hurricanes. Disease. Wild animals. Governments. Evil men with power. For reasons I do not ken, you refuse to acknowledge these things, though you have borne the brunt of some.”
“But your—Captain Fury. You say you love her, but you won’t even try!” she cried. “You argue for rolling over like a beaten dog before the fight has even begun.”
He chuckled. “I have been beaten, Mother. Rolling over is not the worst thing in the world if the goal is to survive to fight a future battle with better odds. What happened to me aboard the Ocean is not the worst thing in the world, either.”
“You say that now, after you have had your revenge.”
Elliott nodded in acknowledgment of its truth. “I cannot deny it.”
They sat in silence for a long while, his mother clutching his hands, her grip tightening as she bent her head and wept.
“I am so sorry, my son. My wonderful, cheerful, courageous little boy. What can I do?”
“You say that there is nothing that cannot be torn asunder,” he said earnestly. “If you truly believe that, then devise a way to free me from the earldom whilst keeping the family safe from any repercussions of my piracy, and let me go. If anyone can, ’twould be you. But if you are not willing to assist me in that, then I pray you simply ponder what I have said. And cease this insistence—at least within my hearing—that a man can control the direction and every detail of his life. He can’t. He can only sail through the storm to the best of his knowledge and ability, and hope he is not dashed upon the rocks before he attains home.”