Gentle Rogue Page 13

"For how long?"

"For as long as I can bear it." And then, watching the Scot release his victim, he added, "Hell and fire,

not even a bloody blow! I would've—"

"Broken his bones, I know." Connie sighed. "Appears to me you're taking this a little too personally."

"Not at all. No one can hit a woman while I'm around and hope to get away with it."

"Is that some new sentiment you've adopted since we set sail? Now, Jamie lad," he added placatingly when James turned on him. "Why don't you save those killing looks for the crew, where they might do some ... All right," he amended with ill grace as James took a step toward him. "I take back every word.

So you're a bloody champion of all womankind."

"I wouldn't go that far."

Connie's humor returned instantly at the appalled look that came over his friend's face. "Neither would I if you weren't so blasted touchy today."

"Touchy? Me? Just because I want to see that woman beater trounced on?"

"I see I must point out the little details again, such as Tiddles ain't even aware that he hit a woman."

"Irrelevant, but point taken. Child beater then. Can't stomach either one. And before you open up that yapping trap to defend the little twit again, tell me if he would have been so quick to clout MacDonell out of his way?"

Connie was forced to concede, "I daresay he would have gone around him."

"Quite so. Now, since you've ruled out all the more preferable forms of reprisal for his bullying tendencies, and the Scot has disappointed me, indeed he has, in merely giving him a warning—"

"I believe the wench saw to that."

"Again irrelevant. Her wishes don't come into this. So the next time I see Mr. Tiddles, it had better be with a prayerbook in his hand."

James wasn't referring to a religious book, but the soft stone used on the hands and knees to renew the deck surfaces that were too small for the larger holystone to get at. After the deck was wetted down, preferably in rainy weather so water didn't have to be hauled up, sand would be sprinkled over the entire surface, then the large holystone with its smooth underside would be dragged fore and aft by means of long ropes attached to the ends. Having to go through the same process on your hands and knees was one of the more unpleasant deck chores.

"You want him sanding decks that are perfectly spotless?" Connie asked for clarification.

"For no less than four watches . . . four consecutive watches."

"Damn me, Hawke, sixteen hours on his knees won't leave much skin on them. He'll be bleeding all over the deck.''

Pointing that out did not change James's mind as he'd hoped. "Quite so. But at least his bones will be intact."

"I hope you know this will only make him resent your lad the more."

"Not at all. I'm sure you can find something about the chap to warrant such a mild punishment. Even the cut of his clothes or their condition will do. His shirt-front ought to be nicely wrinkled from MacDonell's fists, don't you think? But whatever you find fault with, you're the dear fellow who'll be resented, not Georgie."

"Thanks much," Connie sneered. "You could just let it go, you know. They have."

James watched as the two MacDonells headed toward the forecastle. Georgie had her hand pressed to the ear that had been clouted.

"I doubt they have, but under no circumstances will I. So don't quibble any more about my means of retribution, Connie. It's either that or the cat-o'-ninetails. And if you want to talk about blood getting all over the deck ..."

Chapter Fourteen

''Blathering about brick walls again, are ye? Did that mon hit ye sae hard then? Ye should'vee let me do some damage tae—"

"I meant the captain," Georgina hissed as she hurried Mac along in search of a private spot where they could talk. "He's the same two-ton ox who carted me out of the tavern that night I had hoped to forget."

Mac stopped in his tracks. "Ye canna mean that yellow-haired laird? He's yer brick wall?"

" He's our captain."

"Och, now, that isna good news."

She blinked at that calm reply. "Didn't you hear me? Captain Malory is the same man—"

"Aye, I heard ye aright. But ye're no' locked up in the hold, or hasna he seen ye yet?"

"He didn't recognize me."

Mac's brows shot up, not because he was surprised at that answer, but because Georgina sounded piqued that it was so. "Are ye sure he got a good look at ye?"

"From top to bottom," she insisted. "He simply doesn't remember me."

"Aye, well, dinna take it personally, Georgie. They had other things on their minds that night, the both of them. They'd been drinking as well, and some men can ferget their own names after a bad night."

"I thought of that. And I'm not taking it personally." She sniffed indignantly at the very thought. "I was nothing but relieved . . . after I got over my shock of seeing him here. But that's not to say something might stir his memory yet, like seeing you."

"Ye've a point there," Mac said thoughtfully. He glanced over his shoulder to where England was no more than a speck on the horizon.

"It's too late for that," she said, reading his mind correctly.

"So it is," he agreed, then, "come. There's tae many ears here."

He led her not to the forecastle, but belowdecks to the boatswain's domain, now his, a room where the extra rigging was stored. Georgina plopped down on a fat coil of rope while Mac went through the motions of thinking: a bit of pacing, a bit of sighing, and tongue clicking.

Georgina practiced patience as long as she could, all of five minutes, before demanding, "Well? What are we going to do now?"

"I can avoid the mon as long as possible."

"And when it's no longer possible?"

"I hope I'll have grown some hair on my face by then," he said, offering her a grin. "A red bush tae cover this old leather will be as good a disguise as yer own, I'm thinking."

"It will, won't it?" she said, brightening, but only for a moment. "But that only solves one problem."

"I thought we only had the one."

She shook her head before slouching back against the bulkhead. "We also have to figure out a way for me to avoid the man."

"Ye know that isna possible, lass . . . unless ye take sick." He beamed, thinking he'd just solved the matter. "Ye wouldna be feeling poorly, would ye?"

"That won't work, Mac."

"It will."

She shook her head again. "It would if I was to sleep in the fo'c'sle as we assumed, but I've already been informed otherwise." And then she sneered, "The captain's magnanimously offered to share his own cabin with me."

"What!?"

"My sentiments exactly, but the blasted man insisted. He wants me close to hand in case he needs something in the middle of the night, the lazy cur. But what can you expect of a pampered English lord?"

"Then he'll have tae be told."

It was her turn to gasp as she shot to her feet, "What!? You can't be serious!"

"Ye better believe I am, lass." Mac nodded resolutely. "Ye'll no' be sharing a cabin wi' a mon who'snae friend or kin tae ye."

"But he thinks I'm a boy."

"That doesna matter. Yer brothers—"

"Will never know," she cut in angrily. "For God's sake, if you tell Malory, I could end up sharing his cabin anyway, but in a manner even less to my liking. Did you think of that?"

"He wouldna dare!" Mac growled.

"Oh, wouldn't he?" she demanded. "Are you forgetting so soon who's captain around here? He can do anything he blasted well pleases, and protesting on your part will only get you clapped in irons."

''Only the blackest scoundrel would be taking such advantage."

"True. But what makes you think he isn't just that? Are you willing to risk my virtue on the thin likelihood that the man has a scrap of honor? I'm not."

"But, lassie—"

"I mean it, Mac," she insisted stubbornly. "Not a word to him. If I'm found out some other way it will be

soon enough to learn if the Englishman has any decency, but I tell you true, I doubt it. And sleepingin his cabin is the least of my worries. It's being around him otherwise that will be a test of my fortitude. You would not believe how despicable he is, how he takes pleasure in being downright nasty. He actually admitted to me it's one of the few enjoyments he has."

"What is?"

"Putting people on the defensive, making them squirm. He treats them like butterflies, his barbs the pins that nail them to the spot."

"Are ye no' exaggerating a wee bit, lass, disliking the mon as ye do?"

She was, but she didn't care to admit it to him. If she really was the boy the captain thought her to be, she wouldn't have taken offense at what was merely an older man ribbing a younger one about his lack of experience, something males invariably tended to do. And the topic of sex was a natural one between men when women weren't around. Hadn't she overheard enough conversations among her brothers, when they weren't aware that she was about, to know that?

Fortunately, the door opening just then kept her from having to answer Mac. A young sailor rushed in and showed relief at finding the boatswain there.

"The topsail halyard is fraying under these winds, sir. Mr. Sharpe sent me for a new one when he couldn't find you."

"I'll see tae it, mon," Mac said curtly, already turning to locate the proper rope.

The inexperienced sailor left gratefully. Georgina sighed, aware that Mac had no more time for her right now. But she didn't want to leave their conversation on such a bad note, or have him worrying about her.

The only way to do that was to give in and admit, "You were right, Mac. I have been letting my dislike of the man persuade me he's worse than he is. He said himself that he probably won't even notice me underfoot in a few days, which means he's tested my mettle and now won't bother himself with me anymore."

"And ye'll do yer best tae stay unnoticed?"

"I won't even spit in his soup before I serve it up to the great ox."

She grinned to show she was only teasing. He looked horrified to show he knew it. They both laughed before Mac headed toward the door.

"Are ye coming then?"

"No," she said, rubbing her ear under her cap. "I've decided the deck is more hazardous than I remember it being."

"Aye, this wasna a good idea, lass," he said regretfully, referring to their working their way home. It had been his idea, even if he had tried to talk her out of it afterward. If anything happened . . .

She smiled, not blaming him in the least for the way it had turned out. It was no more than bad luck that had made an Englishman, and that particular one, owner and captain of this ship.

"Now, none of that. We're on our way home, and that's all that matters. There's nothing else to do but grin and bear it for a month. I can do it, Mac, I promise. I'm practicing patience, remember?"

"Aye, ye just remember tae practice around him," he replied gruffly.

"Him most of all. Now go on before someone else comes down for that halyard. I think I'll just stay in here for the time being, until duty calls again."

He nodded and left her. Georgina wedged herself between two fat bundles of rope and rested her head back against the bulkhead. She sighed, thinking the day couldn't get any worse. Malory. No, he had a

first name. James Malory. She decided she didn't like the name any more than she did the man. Be honest, Georgina, you can't stand the sight of him. For God's sake, his touch even made you sick.

All right, so she disliked him a lot, a whole lot, and not even just because he was English. There still wasn't anything to be done about it. In fact, she'd have to pretend otherwise, or at least pretend indifference.

She yawned and rubbed at the binding cutting into the skin around her breasts. She wished she could take the thing off for a few hours, but she knew she didn't dare. Getting discovered now would be worse than she had counted on because he would be the one to decide her fate. But as she started to nod off, her lips tilted up into a smug little smile. The man was as stupid as he was obnoxious. He'd been so easy to fool, seeing only what she wanted him to see, and that was worth gloating over.

Chapter Fifteen

"Georgie!"

Her head had rolled forward in sleep, but now it slammed back against the bulkhead as she was startled awake. Fortunately the bulk of her hair and the cap cushioned the blow, but she still glared up at Mac, who continued to shake her shoulder. She opened her mouth to snap at him, but he got his say in first.

"What the devil are ye still doing down here? He's got men searching the whole ship fer ye!"

''What? Who?'' And then it came rushing at her, where she was and who else was on this ship. "Oh, him." She snorted. "Well, he can ..." No, wrong attitude. "What time is it? Am I late serving his dinner?"

"More'n an hour late, I'd say."

She swore under her breath as she scrambled to her feet and headed directly for the door. "Should I go straight to him, do you think, or get his dinner first?" she asked him over her shoulder.

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