Gentle Rogue Page 12

"Your crew," she answered. "Returning from whatever they'd been doing."

He laughed. "Give it a few years, dear boy, and you'll have more tolerance."

"I'm not ignorant, Captain. I know what sailors usually do on their last night in port."

"Oh? Familiar with that side of life, are you?"

Remember you're a boy, remember you're a boy, and for God's sake, don't blush again!

"Certainly," Georgina answered.

She saw it coming, that devilish crook of brow, laughter gleaming in his so-green eyes. But even being

braced for it didn't help when she heard the next question.

"Is that from hearsay ... or experience?"

Georgina choked on her gasp, and coughed for a good ten seconds, during which time the helpful captain pounded on her back. When she could finally breathe again, she figured she probably had a few broken vertebrae, thanks to the brick wall's bricklike fists.

"I don't believe, Captain Malory, that my experience or lack of it, has any bearing whatsoever on this job."

She had a lot more to say about his unorthodox questioning, but his "Quite right" took the wind out of her sails. Which was fortunate, since she wasn't thinking like a twelve-year-old just then. And he had more to say anyway.

"You'll have to forgive me, Georgie. It's my habit to be derogatory, don't you know, and indignation only invites further abuse in my book. So do try not to take it so personally, because to be perfectly honest with you, your displays of chagrin merely amuse me."

She'd never heard anything so ... so preposterous, and he had said it without a morsel of contrition.

Deliberate goading. Deliberate teasing. Deliberate insults. Devil take him, he was a worse scoundrel than she'd first thought.

"Couldn't you just refrain from such provocation . . . sir?" she gritted out.

He gave a short bark of laughter. "And miss little gems of wisdom like that one? No, dear boy, I don't give up my amusements, not for man, woman, or child. I have so few of them, after all."

"Mercy for no one, is that it? Not even sick children get excluded? Or do you finally deem me recovered enough to get up, Captain?"

"You had it right the first go round . . . unless, of course, you're crying pity. I might take that into consideration. Are you?"

"Am I what?"

"Crying pity?"

Rot the man, he was challenging her by bringing pride into it. And boys at the awkward age of twelve had a great deal of pride, which he was undoubtedly counting on. A girl at that age wouldn't only cry pity, she'd be streaming tears along with it. But a boy would rather die than admit he couldn't take a bit of ribbing, even if it was unmerciful ribbing. But devil take it, where did that leave her, a woman who wanted nothing more than to slap his arrogant face, but couldn't because the masquerading Georgie wouldn't do something like that?

And look at him, with features gone blank, and a tenseness in those wide shoulders and chest, as if her answer actually held some significance for him. More than likely he had some brilliant piece of sarcasm ready and waiting for her yes that he would be disappointed to waste.

"I have brothers, Captain, all older than myself," she told him in a tight, frosty voice. "So being baited, badgered, and teased is nothing new to me. My brothers delight in it ... though surely not as much as you do."

"Well said, lad!"

To her chagrin, he looked as pleased as he sounded. Oh, if only she could slap him just once before she deserted the Maiden Anne.

But then a whole new set of emotions rose up to choke her as the man bent forward to grasp her chin, just as Mr. Sharpe had done, for a side-to-side examination of her face. Only unlike Mr. Sharpe's, the captain's touch was very gentle, with two fingers spread over her left cheek.

"All that courage, and as Connie said, not a whisker in sight." The fingers trailed down her smooth cheek to her jaw, very, very slowly, or so it seemed to her rioting senses. "You'll do, brat."

Georgina was going to be sick again, if the funny queasiness now stirring in her lower belly was any indication. But her nervous stomach quieted again as soon as the captain took his hand away. And all she could do was stare at his back as he walked out of the cabin.

Chapter Thirteen

The flare-up of Georgina's queasiness might have passed for the moment, but it was still a good five minutes before her tumultuous thoughts quieted down enough for her to realize she was finally alone in the cabin. When she did realize it, her sound of disgust was loud enough to be heard outside the door if anyone happened to be there. No one was, as she discovered a moment later when she yanked the door open.

Mumbling to herself about brick walls and arrogant English lords, she marched to the stairs and was halfway up them before she happened to remember that she'd been more or less ordered to take a nap.

She paused, worrying at her lower lip with the "pearly whites" Captain Malory had remarked on. What to do, then? Well, she certainly wasn't going back to bed, regardless of that silly order. Her priorities were straight, and finding Mac and somehow getting off the Maiden Anne before it was too late came first.

Yet disobeying a captain's orders was no minor thing, no matter in what terms the order had been couched, or for what reason it was given. So ... she just had to make sure the captain didn't notice her ignoring his order. Simple.

But what if he hadn't gone far? With her luck today . . .No, she had to think positively. If he was insight, she could wait a minute or two for him to leave or to become distracted, but no longer than that. She was going on deck, whether he was there or not. She could always plead wanting a last look at England if she did get caught by him, though the lie would likely stick in her craw.

As it happened, she was annoyed with herself for wasting precious time worrying about it when she stuck her head cautiously through the open hatch and could find no trace of the captain in the immediate vicinity. Unfortunately, there was no sign of Mac either, not even aloft, where he might be checking the rigging.

Climbing the rest of the companionway, she set off in a hurry toward the bow, not daring to look behind her at the quarterdeck and who might be up there with a clear view of the lower decks. She was just short of running, hoping she wouldn't have to search from stem to stern before finding Mac. But she stopped short amidship in the narrow passage between gunwale and deck housing when her eyes happened to glance starboard. There, as far as the eye could see, was nothing but ocean. Her head snapped around to stern and there was the land she had expected to see passing to port and starboard, not the riverbanks she desperately needed close to hand, but the great bulk of England getting smaller and smaller in the wake of the ship.

Georgina simply stared, watching her chance to abandon ship receding rapidly in the distance. How was it possible? Her eyes shot up to a sky too overcast for her to even hazard a guess at the time of day.

Could it have been so late when she had carried that tray of food to the captain? A look at the bowed sails told her the ship was making better than excellent time with storm winds pushing them out to sea, but still, to have left England behind already? They had been navigating the river when she had gone below-decks to meet the captain.

Anger hit her swift and hard. Double-damn him, if he hadn't been so bent on entertaining himself at her expense with his provoking banter and his unnecessary concern, which she saw now as no more than an opportunity to force his arbitrary will on her, she could have seen the last of him. Now . . . devil take it, she was trapped on his ship, subject to his nasty whims, and likely could expect a great deal more of the aggravation she had experienced at his hands this afternoon. Hadn't he admitted that he enjoyed pushing a person to the ends of his temper? As sweet-tempered as she was, and she assured herself that she was, even she couldn't be expected to last long under such deliberate goading. She'd be provoked and provoked until she ended up slapping him or putting up some other such female defense that would give her away. And then what? With his cruel sense of humor, she couldn't even begin to guess.

Madam Luck had truly deserted her today. So had caution for the moment. When her panicky thoughts were interrupted by a sharp nudge to her shoulder, she came around snapping "What?!" in a voice loaded with haughty exasperation. Such an impudent response naturally enough got her cuffed instantly.

The blow to the side of her head slammed her into the gunwale, where her feet slowly slipped forward until her backside hit the deck.

She was surprised more than dazed, though her throbbing ear hurt. And she didn't have to be told what she'd done wrong, though the belligerent sailor standing over her was quick to tell her anyway.

"Sass off to me ag'in, you cheeky little bugger, an' I'll toss you o'er sooner'n you can spit. An' don't let me catch you blockin' the bleedin' way ag'in, neither!"

The area wasn't so narrow that he couldn't have gone around her. He wasn't very big, and was skinny besides. But Georgina didn't point that out. She was too busy getting her sprawled legs out of his way, since he was about to kick them aside rather than step over them to go about his business.

Meanwhile, on the quarterdeck, Conrad Sharpe was having a devil of a time keeping the captain from vaulting over the railing to the deck below, as he had started to do the instant the girl had been cuffed.

And to restrain him without appearing to do so was no easy task, either.

"Blister it, Hawke, the worst is over. Interfere now and you—"

"Interfere? I'm going to break the man's bones!"

"Well, there's a brilliant notion," Connie tossed back sarcastically. "How better to show the crew that Georgie boy is not to be treated like a cabin boy at all, but as your own personal property? You might as well yank off that silly cap and fetch up a gown. Either way, you'll have the men's interest centered on your little friend until they find out what is so special about him that had you committing murder. And don't raise that brow at me, you bloody fool. Your fists would be lethal on someone that size, and you know it."

"Very well, I'll just have the chap keelhauled."

Hearing the dry tone that signaled James had come to his senses, Connie grinned and stepped back.

"No, you won't. What reason would you give? The wench got lippy. We heard her from here. There isn't a man aboard who wouldn't have done exactly as Tiddles did with such provocation coming from such a little squirt. Besides, looks like the brother's going to take care of it, and no one will wonder about him coming to the brat's defense."

They both watched as Ian MacDonell bore down on Tiddles, yanking him around just as he'd been about to kick the girl. Up went the shorter man to dangle from the Scot's fists, each fastened on his checkered shirtfront. And although MacDonell didn't raise his voice, the warning he issued carried across the deck.

"Touch the laddie again, mon, and I'm thinking I'll have tae kill ye."

"He puts it rather well, don't he?" James commented.

"At least no one will remark on it ... coming from him, that is."

"You made your bloody point, Connie. You don't have to belabor it. Now what the deuce is she saying to the Scot?"

The girl had gotten up and was speaking earnestly but quietly to her brother, who still held Tiddles aloft.

"Appears she might be trying to defuse the matter. Smart girl. She knows where the blame belongs. If she hadn't been standing about gawking—"

"I'm partly to blame for that," James cut in.

"Oh? Did I miss something, like seeing you down there nailing her feet to the deck?"

"In high form, aren't we? But notice, old friend, that I'm not amused."

"Pity, since I am." Connie grinned unrepentantly. "But I can see you're perishing to do the noble, so go ahead. Confess why you think you're responsible for the brat's impudence."

"I don't think, I know," James retorted, all but glowering at his friend. "As soon as she recognized me she decided to jump ship."

"She told you that, did she?"

"She didn't have to," James replied. "It was written all over her face."

"I hate to point out little details, old man, but she's still here."

" 'Course she is," James snapped. "But only because I detained her in my cabin until it was too late for her to do anything foolish. She wasn't on the deck gawking. She was watching her only opportunity to escape recede into the distance . . . and prob'ly cursing me to everlasting hell."

"Well, she isn't likely to make the mistake again— of getting in the way, that is. A clout on the ear usually serves as a good lesson."

"But it's set Tiddles against her. Artie, too, was ready to kick her arse a good one, and would have if I hadn't been there. You should have heard the imperious way she was ordering him about."

"You don't suppose the brat's a lady, do you?"

James shrugged. "She's an old hand at directing underlings, whatever she is. Educated, too, or else a great mimicker of her betters."

Connie's humor deserted him. "Damn me, that puts a different light on this, Hawke."

"The devil it does. I didn't put her in those breeches. And what the deuce did you think she was? A dockside whore?" Connie's silence was answer enough, and drew a short bark of laughter from James.

"Well, you can stow the chivalry, Connie. It don't sit well on your shoulders any more than it does on mine. The cunning little baggage can be a bloody princess for all I care, but for the time being, she's a cabin boy until I say otherwise. It's a role she gave herself to play, and I mean to let her play it out."

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