Gentle Rogue Page 10

She watched in fascinated horror as one tawny brow quirked curiously, "Something wrong, lad?"

"No," she squeaked and dropped her eyes to the floor so fast that a pain streaked through her temples.

"You're not going to dissolve into pea soup after all, are you?"

She choked out a negative sound to that droll inquiry.

"Splendid! Don't think my constitution could bear it just now. The mess, you know."

What was he rattling on about? He should be pointing a ringer and condemning her with an appalled

"You!" Didn't he recognize her? And then it registered. Even after seeing her face clearly, he'd still called her lad. That brought her head back up for closer scrutiny, and in his eyes and expression there was no surprise, no suspicion or doubt. The eyes were still intimidating in their directness, but they merely showed amusement at her nervous behavior. He didn't remember her at all. Not even Mac's name had jarred his memory.

Incredible. Of course, she looked quite different from that night in the tavern when she had been done up in oversized and undersized clothing. Her clothes fit her perfectly now, not too tight or loose, and all new, right down to her shoes. Only her cap was the same. The tight bindings about her br**sts and the loose ones around her waist gave her the straight lines of a boy. And then, too, the lighting hadn't been the best that night. Maybe he hadn't gotten as good a look at her as she had of him. Besides, why should he remember the incident? Considering the rough way he had handled her in the tavern, it was possible he had been as drunk as a loon.

James Malory was aware of the exact moment that she relaxed and accepted his pretense of not knowing her. There had been the chance that she might bring up their original meeting, and he had held his breath when she first recognized him, afraid she might give up the game then and there with a return of the temper he had been treated to that night at the tavern. But in not suspecting that he was on to her, she had obviously decided to hold her tongue and stick to her disguise, which was exactly what he had hoped she would do.

He could have relaxed himself, except for the sexual tension that had taken hold of him the moment she walked through the door, something he hadn't felt so keenly in the presence of a woman in ... Good God, it had been so long he couldn't remember the last time. Women had simply become too easily obtainable.

Even competing with Anthony for the ladies most fair had lost its challenge long before he had quit England ten years ago. The competition had become the sport, not the prize. The winning of one particular lady simply hadn't mattered when there were so many to choose from.

But here was something altogether different, a true challenge, a conquest that mattered. Why it mattered was disconcerting to a man of his jaded experience. For once, just any woman wouldn't do. He wanted this one. It could be because he'd lost her once and been more than a little disappointed over it.

Disappointment in itself was unusual for him. It could be simply the mystery she represented. Or it could be no more than that cute little backside he remembered so well.

Whatever the reason, having her was now all-important, yet in no way a foregone conclusion. Which was why his shell of boredom had been cracked, and why he was rife with a tension that wouldn't let him relax with her standing so near. In fact, he was just short of actual arousal, which he found utterly preposterous, considering he hadn't even touched her yet, nor could he, at least not as he would like, if he was going to play this game through. And the game presented too many delightful possibilities to abandon just yet.

So he put some space between himself and temptation, moving to the table to examine the contents under the silver domes. The expected knock at the door came before he finished.

"Georgie, is it?"

"Captain?"

He glanced over his shoulder at her. "Your name?"

"Oh! Yes, it's Georgie."

He nodded. "That will be Artie with my trunks. You can empty them while I pick through this cold fare."

"Would you like me to have it heated, Captain?"

He heard the hopeful note which betrayed her eagerness to leave the room, but he wasn't letting her out of his sight until the Maiden Anne left England's shores behind. If she had any degree of intelligence at all, she had to know her risk of discovery was increased by their previous meeting, that even though he didn't appear to remember her now, he could at any time. In light of that, she was likely considering the alternative of abandoning ship before it was too late to do so, even if she had to swim to shore—if she could swim. He wasn't going to give her that option.

"The food will suffice. I haven't much appetite yet, at any rate." And when she continued to just stand where he'd left her, he added, "The door, dear boy. It won't open by itself."

He noted the pursed lips as she marched to the door. She didn't like being prodded. Or was it his dry tone she objected to? He also noted the authoritative way she directed the cantankerous Artie in the placing of the trunks, earning a sour look from the sailor that abruptly changed her manner back to the meekness of a young lad.

James almost laughed aloud, until he realized the wench was going to have a problem with her temper if she forgot who she was supposed to be each time it sparked. The crew wouldn't put up with such haughty airs from a supposed youngun. But short of announcing that the boy was under his personal protection, which would have the new members of his crew snickering behind his back, the old ones looking at the lad more closely, and Connie rolling on the deck in laughter, James would just have to keep a close eye on Georgie MacDonell himself. But that would be no hardship. She really was quite adorable in her lad's togs.

The woolen cap he remembered still hid all her hair from him, though the sable brows indicated her hair would be dark, perhaps the rich brown of her eyes. There were no suspicious lumps under the cap, so either her hair had not been very long to begin with, or she had sheered it off for her disguise, which he sincerely hoped not.

The white tunic was long-sleeved and high-necked, and fell nearly mid-thigh, which effectively hid her cute derriere. He tried to figure out what she'd done with her br**sts and, for that matter, the tiny waist he remembered holding. The tunic wasn't bulky but fit narrowly on her frame, giving her straight lines that a wide belt bore testimony to. If there were bumps to be seen, they remained concealed under the short vest worn over the tunic.

Now that was a piece of ingenious clothing ideal for her purposes. Thick with fleece on one side, hard leather on the other, the vest lay on her like a steel cage, so stiff it wouldn't flap open even in a strong wind. Untied, it showed only about three inches of her tunic down the front, three inches of flat chest and flat belly.

The tunic hid the rest until her buff-colored knee breeches began. They ended just below the knee, where thick woolen stockings disguised the slimness of her calves. Being neither too loose nor too tight, they made shapely limbs look like perfectly normal boy's legs instead.

He watched her silently as she meticulously went through each item in his trunks and found a place for it either in the highboy or in the cabinet-converted-wardrobe. Johnny, his previous cabin boy, would have taken armfuls of clothing and just dumped them in the nearest drawer. James had yelled at him enough times for doing just that. But his little Georgie gave herself away with her feminine neatness. He doubted

she realized that, doubted she knew any other way to do it. But how long would her disguise last with little blunders like that?

He tried to see her as anyone unaware of her secret would see her. It wasn't easy because he did know what was under those clothes. But if he didn't know ... By God, it wouldn't be that easy to guess. It was her size, really, that pulled it off. Connie was right, she really was a tiny thing, no bigger than a ten-year-old, though she had given her age as twelve. Hell and fire, she wasn't too young for him, was she? He couldn't very well ask her. No, he couldn't believe that she was, not with what he had felt that night in the tavern, not with that luscious mouth and those soul-sucking eyes. She might be young, but not too young.

She dropped the lid on the second empty trunk and glanced his way. "Should I cart these out, Captain?"

The grin came despite himself. "I doubt you can, dear boy, so don't bother to strain those meager muscles. Artie will return for them later."

"I'm stronger than I look," she insisted stubbornly.

"Are you indeed? That's good to know, since you'll have to be lugging one of those heavy chairs about daily. I usually dine with my first mate in the evenings."

"Only him?" Her eyes darted to the five chairs about the room, not counting the one he was now sitting in. "Not your other officers?"

"This is not a military ship," he pointed out. "And I do like my privacy."

She brightened immediately. "Then I'll leave you-"

"Not so fast, youngun." He stopped her on the way to the door. "Where d'you think you're off to when your duties are only in this cabin?"

"I ... well . . . assumed, that is ... you mentioned privacy."

"My tone of voice, was it? Too sharp for you, lad?"

"Sir?"

"You're stuttering."

Her head bowed. "I'm sorry, Captain."

"None of that, now. You'll look me in the eye if you've something to apologize for, which you don't . . .

yet. I'm not your father to box your ears or take a strap to you, I'm your captain. So don't cringe every time I raise my voice or if I'm in a bloody rotten mood and I look at you crossly. Do as you're told, without question or argument, and you and I will get along just fine. Is that understood?"

"Clearly."

"Splendid. Then get your arse over here and finish this food for me. Can't have Mr. O'Shawn thinking I don't appreciate his efforts, or there's no telling what I'll find on my plate next time." When she started to protest, he forestalled it with, "You look half starved, damn me if you don't. But we'll put some meat on those bones before we reach Jamaica. YouVe my word on it."

Georgina had to fight to keep the frown off her face as she grabbed a chair and dragged it to the table, especially when she saw that he'd barely touched his food. Not that she wasn't hungry. She was. But how could she eat with him sitting there staring at her? And she had to find Mac, not waste precious time here doing nothing more than eating. She had to tell him the startling news of who the captain actually was, before it was too late to do anything about it.

"By the by, youngun, my privacy doesn't apply to you," the captain said as he pushed the tray of cold food across the table to her. "How can it, when your duties require constant attendance on me? And besides, in a few days' time, I won't even notice you underfoot."

That was heartening, but didn't change the fact that he was noticing her right now, and waiting for her to begin eating. Surprisingly, she noted there was no congealing grease on the poached fish, crisply steamed vegetables, and fresh fruits. Cold, it still looked delicious.

All right, the sooner done, the sooner gone. She began shoveling the food down in appalling haste, but after only a few minutes realized her mistake; it was coming right back up. Her eyes widened in horror and flew to the commode, followed by her feet as she ran to get at the chamber pot within, only one thought in her mind— Please, God, let it be empty. It was, and she yanked it out just in time, only vaguely hearing the captain's droll "Good God, you're not going to . . . well, I see that you are."

She didn't care what he thought just then as her stomach heaved every bite she had just forced down and then some. Before it was over, she felt a cold, wet cloth on her forehead and a heavy, sympathetic hand on her shoulder.

"I'm sorry, lad. I should have realized you were still too nervous to stomach food. Come on then, let me help you to the bed."

"No, I—"

"Don't argue. You'll probably never be offered the use of it again, and it's a bloody comfortable bed.

Take advantage of my remorse and use it."

"But I don't wan—"

"I thought we agreed you'd take your orders as they came? I'm ordering you to lay yourself on that bed and rest awhile. So d'you need carrying, or can you get your arse over there by yourself?"

From gentleness, to briskness, to downright impatience. Georgina didn't answer him; she just ran to the large bed and threw herself on it. He was going to be an autocrat, she could see, one of those who believed that the captain of a ship at sea was God Almighty. But she did feel wretched just now, did need to lie down, only not in his blasted bed. And there he was standing over her, now bending over her. She gasped, then prayed he hadn't heard it, for all he did was place the cold cloth back on her forehead.

"You ought to remove that cap and vest; the shoes, too. You'll be more comfortable."

Georgina blanched. Was she going to have to start disobeying him already?

She tried not to sound sarcastic, but put it plainly, "Much as you might think otherwise, Captain, I do know how to take care of myself. I'm fine the way I am."

"Suit yourself," he replied with a shrug and, to her relief, turned away. But a moment later she heard from across the room, "By the by, Georgie, remember to fetch your hammock and belongings from the fo'c'sle later, when you're feeling better. My cabin boy sleeps where he's needed."

Chapter Twelve

"Needed?" Georgina croaked as she sat up in the big bed. Then her eyes narrowed suspiciously on the captain, who was slouching languidly back in the chair she had vacated, so that he was facing her, and watching her. "Needed for what in the middle of the night?"

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