Gentle Rogue Page 18

"Look on this experience as atoning fer yer impulsiveness and hope yer brothers take that into account afore they drop the roof on yer head."

She grinned slightly. "I knew I could count on you to cheer me up."

He snorted and went back to splicing. She did, too, but she was soon brooding again over what was really bothering her. She finally decided to broach it.

"Have you ever heard of a person getting sick when they get too close to something, Mac?"

His light gray eyes pinned her with a curious frown. "Sick how?"

"Sick. You know, nauseous."

His brow cleared instantly. "Oh, aye, lots of foods will do that, when a mon's already feeling poorly from drink, or a woman's going tae have a bairn."

"No, not when something is already wrong with you. I meant when you're feeling perfectly fine, until you

get close to a certain thing."

He was frowning again. "A certain thing, is it? And will ye be telling me what this thing is that's making ye sick?"

"I didn't say it was me."

"Georgie ..."

"Oh, all right," she snapped. "So it's the captain.

Half the time I get near him, my stomach reacts horribly."

"Only half?"

"Yes. It doesn't happen every time."

"And ye've actually been sick? Actually vomited?"

"Once, yes, but . . . well, that was the first day, when I'd just found out who he was. He forced me to eat, and I was just too nervous and upset to hold anything down. Since then, it's just been the nausea, sometimes worse than other times, but I haven't vomited again—yet."

Mac pulled at the red whiskers now covering his chin, mulling over what she'd said. What he suspected, he discounted, and so didn't even mention it to her. She disliked the captain too much to be attracted to him, much less to be experiencing any sort of sexual desire that she might be mistaking for nausea.

Finally, he said, "Could it be the scent he wears, lass, or the soap he uses? Or maybe even something he puts on his hair?"

Her eyes widened just before she laughed. "Now why didn't I think of that?" She jumped up, dropping her pile of rope into his lap.

"And where are ye off tae?"

"It's not his soap. I use it myself to sponge off. And he doesn't use anything on his hair, just lets it fly any which way. But he's got a bottle of something he uses after he shaves. I'm going to go smell it now, and if that's it, you can guess where it's going."

He was pleased to see her smiling again, but reminded her, "He'll miss it if ye just toss it over the side."

She almost said she'd worry about that later, but there was no point in courting trouble with that attitude.

"So I'll tell him the truth. He's an arrogant beast, but . . . well, he's not so insensitive that he'd continue to use something if he knew it made me ill. I'll see you later, Mac, or tomorrow at any rate," she amended, noting the sun was on its downward swing.

"Ye promise ye willna do anything tae get yerself punished?"

If he knew what punishment she'd been warned of, he wouldn't have to ask that. "I promise."

And she meant it. If it was the captain's cologne that had been causing her such distress, there was no reason not to tell him about it. She should have mentioned it sooner, she was thinking, just before she ran right into him on the lower deck.

Her stomach flipped over, which brought a grimace to her face that she wasn't quick enough to hide.

"Ah," James Malory remarked, seeing it. "You must have read my mind, George."

"Captain?"

"Your expression. YouVe divined that I have a bone to pick with you about your bathing habits, or should I say, your lack thereof?"

Her face turned pink, then almost purple with indignation. "How dare—"

"Oh, come now, George. D'you think I don't know lads your age look on bathing as some kind of heinous torture? I was a lad once myself, you know. But you're sharing my cabin—"

"Not by choice," she got in.

"Regardless, I have certain standards I adhere to, cleanliness among them, or at the very least, the smell of cleanliness."

He twitched his nose just for good measure, she was sure. And if she weren't so furiously affronted, she might have burst into laughter, considering what she and Mac had just been discussing. He found her smell offensive? God, how ironic, and what poetic justice if it also made him ill.

He was continuing, "And since you haven't made the slightest effort to rise to my standards—"

"I'll have you know—"

"Do not interrupt me again, George," he cut in in his most autocratic tone. "The matter has already been decided. Henceforth, you will make use of my tub for a thorough scrubbing no less than once a week, more often if you like, and you will begin today. And that, dear boy, is an order. So I suggest you get busy if you're still missish in desiring privacy for such things. You will have until the dinner hour."

She opened her mouth to protest this new highhandedness of his, but the raising of that detestable golden brow reminded her that she didn't dare, not when he'd made it a blasted order.

"Yes, sir ," she said, infusing the "sir" with as much contempt as she could manage without getting cuffed for it.

James frowned as he watched her stomp away, wondering if he hadn't just made a colossal mistake. He had thought he'd be doing her a favor by ordering her to take a bath, at the same time assuring her she'd have the privacy to do it. As closely as he kept tabs on her, he knew she hadn't had a decent one since she'd come aboard. But he also knew that most women, ladies in particular, cherished their baths. He was sure that Georgie was simply still too fearful of discovery to chance it; ergo, he would take the matter into his hands and force her to do what she would be most grateful for. What he had not expected was that she would get indignant about it, though if he had been thinking clearly, which he couldn't quite seem to manage lately, he would have.

You do not tell a lady she stinks, you bloody ass.

Chapter Twenty

Georgina's anger dissolved in the warm water the very moment she lay back in the long tub. It was heavenly, almost as good as her own tub at home. Hers conformed more to her size, but having the extra room was nice, really nice. The only thing she lacked were her scented oils and her maid to help rinse her long hair—and the confidence that she wouldn't be disturbed.

But the tub was long enough to submerge completely, hair and all. The chafed and deeply grooved skin around her br**sts burned when the water first covered it, but even that was minor compared to the joy of being totally clean, totally unbound. If only the captain hadn't insisted . . .

Oh, devil take it, she was glad he had. It would have taken her at least another week to get up the nerve to do it on her own. And she'd been feeling very sticky lately from the salt air, the heat in the galley, not to mention how hot this cabin got every time the captain took off his clothes. A hurried sponge bath just wasn't enough.

But as much as she wanted to, she still couldn't linger in the tub. She had to be back in disguise before the dinner hour, hair dried and stuffed away, br**sts flattened again. And there was always the possibility that the captain might actually need something from the cabin, and in that case, he wasn't likely to honor her privacy sign. The screen was there to hide her, but still, just the thought of being completely na**d with him in the same room was enough to make her blush.

But he was true to his word and didn't come below until much later. By then she'd had her dinner, had his waiting for him, enough for two, though Conrad Sharpe didn't join him that evening. It wasn't until she left to fetch the water for his bath that she remembered that bottle of sweetwater he used. She decided she'd have a sniff of it the moment he stepped behind the screen, but as it happened, he sent her off for extra water tonight to wash and rinse his hair with, and by the time she got back with it, he was ready to have his back scrubbed.

Annoyed now, mostly with herself for having missed the opportunity to get to that bottle when he wasn't around, she made short work of washing his back. She would still have the few moments while he dried himself, and thinking of that rather than what she was doing helped to keep the nausea down, though she didn't even notice its absence this once.

Since she always kept his towels near enough for him to reach, she left him as soon as she sluiced the last bucket of water over his back, and headed straight for his highboy. But as her luck had been running lately, it wasn't surprising that he came around the screen while she was still standing there with the bottle in her hand. And the only reason she was caught was that she'd been so disappointed after taking a whiff of the cologne, she didn't put it away immediately. The scent was spicy, a little musky, but it didn't bring on her nausea as she'd been so sure it would. No, it was the captain who made her sick, not the smell of him.

"I hope you haven't disobeyed a direct order, George," his voice came at her sharply.

"Sir?"

"What d'you think you're doing with that bottle?"

She realized then what he was implying and quickly corked the bottle and put it back. "It's not what you think, Captain. I wasn't going to use it, even if there was a need to, which there isn't. I did bathe; I

promise you I did. I'm not so foolish as to think I could mask an offensive smell with a little sweet scent from a bottle. I know some people do, but I'd rather be . . . that is, I wouldn't."

"Glad to know it, but that does not answer my question, lad."

"Oh, your question. I just wanted to—" Sniff it, when he wears it all the time ? He'll never buy that, Georgie. And what's wrong with the truth? After all, he wasn't a bit hesitant in telling you that he found your scent offensive . "Actually, Captain—-"

"Present yourself, George. I'll see for myself if you're telling the truth."

She gritted her teeth in exasperation. The blasted man wanted to smell her, and it wouldn't do a bit of good to protest. He'd just make it an order, and get annoyed himself because he had to. But he was only wearing that indecently thin robe. She was beginning to feel the heat already.

She came around the bed slowly. She was wringing her hands by the time she stood before him. And he made no pretense about it. He bent, stuck his nose by her neck, and sniffed. She might have gotten through it without incident if his cheek hadn't rubbed against hers.

"What the deuce are you groaning about?"

He said it as if he should be the one groaning. And he sounded quite put out. But she couldn't help it.

She felt as if everything inside her was clamoring to get out. She stepped back quickly, far back, so she could breathe again. She couldn't meet his eyes.

"I'm sorry, Captain, but . . . there's no delicate way to put this. You make me ill."

She wouldn't have been surprised if he came forward and clobbered her, but he didn't move an inch. He simply said in the most indignant tone she'd ever heard from him, "I beg your pardon."

She would have preferred to be clouted than try to explain this. What had made her think she could tell

him the truth, when the truth was so horribly embarrassing, for her, not him? Obviously, this was her problem. There was something wrong with her, since no one else got sick around him. And he might not even believe her, might think she was merely trying to get back at him for implying that she smelled bad, when she knew very well she didn't. In fact, he was more than likely going to think just that, and get mad.

The devil take it, why hadn't she just kept her mouth shut?

But it was too late now, and quickly, before he decided to stomp all over her, she explained, "I'm not trying to insult you, Captain, I swear I'm not. I don't know what the problem is. I asked Mac, and he thought maybe your scent was doing it. That's what I was doing with your bottle, smelling it ... but it'snot that. I wish it was, but it's not. It could be only coincidence." She brightened with that thought, which just might save her neck, and even dared to glance up at him to expound on it. "Yes, I'm sure it's just a coincidence."

"What is?"

Thank God, he sounded calm, looked it, too. She'd been afraid he would be mottled with rage by now.

"That I only get sick when you're around, mostly when I get too near you." Best not to mention the times when just looking at him did it, or his looking at her. In fact, she'd be smart to end this subject and fast.

"But it's my problem, sir. And I won't let it interfere with my duties. Please, just forget I mentioned it."

"Forget . . . ?"

He sounded as if he were choking. She squirmed, wishing she could drop through the floor. He wasn't calm as she'd thought. Maybe he was in shock over her audacity, or so angry that words failed him.

"What . . . kind . . . of sick?"

Worse and worse. He wanted details. Did he believe her, or was he hoping to prove she was just being spiteful so he could feel justified in clobbering her? And if she tried to pass it off as nothing now, he really would think she'd only been trying to get back at him, but was now regretting it.

She was indeed regretting opening her big mouth, but as long as she'd gone this far, she'd better stick

with the truth.

But she braced herself before saying, "I'm sorry, Captain, but the closest comparison I can think of is nausea."

''Have you actually—?''

"No! It's just this real funny queasiness I feel, and shortness of breath, and I get so warm, well ... actually hot, but I'm almost positive it's not fever. And this weakness comes over me, like my strength is just draining away."

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