“I can manage,” Rose said as she threw the tail of her long skirt over one wrist and skipped up the planked gangway.
“This is Captain Cooley,” Bennet said. “Miss Gwen Rose Wall will be sailing with you to Europe.”
“Aye, if we ever get out of port. It’s yer own ship and all, but to be replacin’ a perfectly fine mainmast...” Cooley shook his head grimly as the chocks squeaked and the men heaved. The mast was belayed with stout ropes until the pulleys could be repositioned, run out and fastened to the mast again as the huge billet of wood swayed ponderously over the deck. A man in a carpenter’s apron was excitedly crawling about underneath the many tons of wood, making Rose’s flesh creep. Cooley went over at the seaman’s excited exclamation and lay down on the deck himself to examine the butt of the mast. He rose again and waved his hand, shouting some order that started the pulleys to squeaking again.
“Well, I’ll be blasted! Beggin’ yer pardon, miss. It beats me how you knew that mast was cracked afore I did, Mr. Varner. You can see the interior crack from the base. It would probably have riven into splinters in the next storm. You are a wonder, sir. Yer father would’ve been proud of ye.”
Rose thought she had caught a look of surprise flit across Bennet’s face before his usual aspect of cheerful confidence reasserted itself. If Bennet had known the mast was cracked then this had not been a deliberate ruse to keep her in London a few more days. But if, as she surmised, it had been a lucky guess, it meant Bennet was still suspect. What could he hope to accomplish in a few days or a week—the liberation of Napoleon? The realization hit her in a warm rush. If Bennet were trying to contrive that, then he must know Europe would soon be a very dangerous place for the English, or was it just that he could not afford to let her and her knowledge loose on the Continent?
Absurd! She was much more of a danger to Bennet here in London than in Paris. She could and probably should march right into the Foreign Office and tell them what she had overheard. She went over in her mind how she would tell it, how she would probably be unsuccessful in gaining an audience with anyone of importance, how they would disbelieve her even if she got someone’s ear. She would appear a fool, but what did that matter where the safety of the country was at stake? She considered for no more than a moment confiding in Stanley. He was so unused to trusting her judgment in any matter of importance that she knew he would only say she must have misheard and dismiss her concern.
“Seen enough?” Bennet’s abrupt question caused Rose to jump.
She cleared her throat. “We have not seen the cabins yet.”
“I think you will be quite pleased on that account. Let me go down the companionway first so that I may assist you.”
“I do not need any help,” Rose insisted. But the effort of bunching up her riding skirt and trying to keep it tucked about her so as not to expose her ankles left her with only one hand to hang on to the ladder. She could not see her feet, and one misstep caught her off balance. She let go of her skirts but too late to avoid a tumble backward into Bennet Varner’s arms. After her initial gasp she clutched him around the neck and looked accusingly into his eyes. “Knowing you as I do I might almost think that was no accident.”
“Of course not. I bring all my chères amies here, hoping they will fall down that ladder into my arms ”
“You can put me down now.”
“Miss, are you all right?” Captain Cooley called from the deck.
“We’re fine,” Bennet shouted back.
“Harrumph. I was askin’ Miss Wall.”
“I’m all right, Captain Cooley. Thank you,” Rose called. “He seems to have your measure,” she said quietly to Bennet.
“He’s like a father to me.”
When Bennet finally did set her on her feet again, it was some minutes before the warmth of his touch could be driven from her mind. He hefted her as though she weighed nothing. Bennet Varner was neither an office recluse nor a society lapdog, but a man capable of physical prowess, and Rose did not believe he had got that way just training horses.
“Do the cabins meet with your approval?” he asked after she had meticulously looked through all of them. They did have small windows but she was agreeably surprised by their scrubbed and polished look.
“They are much more spacious than I ever dreamed. Shall I have our trunks sent down?”
“Not quite yet. They would only be in the way for the moment,” Bennet said as he conducted her to the ladder. Rose made him go first for she was quite sure ascending was much easier than going down, especially if there was no one staring up your dress. And she must get the hang of it, for Bennet would not always be there to catch her.
Rose turned her face into the breeze and inhaled deeply. She could imagine clinging to the rail as the ship plunged between waves like a frisky horse, tossing its head and glorying in what it did best. Bennet came to stand behind her. She could almost feel the heat of his body vibrating through the slight space of air that must remain between them.
“Do you not fear seasickness?” he asked, quite out of tune with her romantic thoughts.
“Not in the least,” she said with a smile.
“I did not mean you, of course, but your sister-in-law seems of a delicate constitution.”
“Oh, I am sure Alice will be sick, but it will not be as bad as being shut up in a carriage with her the whole way from Wall. On the ship she can have her maid to mop her brow with lavender water.”
Captain Cooley strolled over to see them off the ship. “Seasickness? Not unless it be a rough crossing. If you are used to a horse galloping under you, the Celestine will seem like a cradle.”
Rose almost laughed out loud at the look of woe this caused on Bennet’s face. “But I suppose we will be delayed weeks over this mast, sir,” Rose said ingenuously.
“Weeks? Bless you, miss. No. This is but a trifle. We could sail day after tomorrow if we was not waitin’ fer a cargo.” As this last was said with a somewhat accusing glance toward Bennet, Rose surmised that the delay was deliberate.
“Thank you, Captain Cooley, for letting me see the Celestine. I can look forward to the voyage with a quiet mind now.”
Cooley clicked his heels together, bowed and kissed her hand for good measure.
“What a gentlemen,” Rose said as she negotiated the narrow gangway. She did not refuse the hand Bennet stretched to her as she made her way down the ramp to the quay nor the strong arms that lifted her into the carriage.
“I suppose you think it rather archaic for a bride to need the comfort of a sister along on her wedding trip, and not even her own sister at that.”
“It’s as good a way to escape home as any,” Bennet replied, getting in beside her and taking the reins from his tiger.
“Disabuse yourself of the notion I came willingly. My mother insisted upon it.”
“Your mother?” Bennet queried as he skillfully turned the curricle in the tight area of the wharf and set off.
“Yes, I think she wanted to dislodge me from Wall, make me give up the management of it. Perhaps she and Stanley even conspired to rip me from my moorings in this fashion.”
“Then you do not really want to go to Europe?” Bennet asked hopefully.
“Oh, for lack of anything better to do, but no, it was not my idea.”
Rose glanced at Bennet’s profile, watching the wheels grind behind his so innocuous eyes. She wondered if he would now try to give Stanley and Alice a disgust of the voyage, or failing that, the Continent itself.
“I was thinking,” Bennet said, “since you have no engagement for tonight you might like to use my box at the theater. It’s a new play and I think you might like it. You can at least be sure your pleasure will not be interrupted by the appearance of Mother and Harriet, since they will be at Lady Catherine’s rout.”
Вы ознакомились с фрагментом книги.
Приобретайте полный текст книги у нашего партнера: