Hollee stopped at the edge of the patio, feeling acutely as though he were invading on some private scene. It was not just the press of Navy uniforms either, he felt as though he was watching the polite dance in front of him through a thin veil. There were not enough partners for the ladies, and some of the men were standing off to one side, observing and smoking thin cigars. They seemed so perfectly of this world for a moment Hollee felt an irrational urge to dash a glass of red wine all over those neat buff waistcoats. He was suddenly very aware of the perfidous document in his pocket as though it were smouldering and burning him through the fabric of his coat. He couldn’t fit in with these peacocking Navy men, had no desire to fit in with Reeve’s unwieldy armada, all he wanted was to be left alone, to his ocean, his Windsong, to travel in peace. He wondered if the Navy men were talking about him, murmuring rude questions about the odd man out in the green coat who had been pulled away from the party. He had only been gone for five minutes—but the party had moved forward without him, leaving him behind, foundering.
And now he noticed that Fanny was dancing with Nelson. Hollee had no sense for such things, but he supposed the man moved well enough—although he looked rather odd, being an inch or so shorter than Fanny. He appeared to be doing all the talking. At least, his mouth moved continually as they moved through the different sets of the dance. Captain Hardy was making a decorous turn with Mary who was smiling and working her dimples at him. Either the man was blind or unaffected because he kept his face politely straight.
Fanny had such a lovely uncomplicated life, Hollee mused as he slunk off to the buffet and busied his hands with a small plate of cheeses. He chased that with a few slices of mango, then reached for another glass of wine. The niece of the president, she could move in any social circle she wished—yet without performing the stringent duties of a hostess. An opportunity to meet as many eligible bachelors as she could wish. With her calm good manners, but lively interest in society, she would be a welcome addition to any gathering. And there was no pressure on her. No one could deny that she had been a wanted woman—her son Josiah, who was presently being relieved of a glass of wine by his wearied nurse was proof of that. Not like Herbert’s daughter, who laughed gaily at the slightest remark said by any man of rank. That was it, Hollee decided, she had no need to marry every again, should she choose, and so she was free to be her own sweet self.
The last thought was not analyzed by his swift moving brain, but floated across his mind and disappeared like a soap bubble so that he hardly realized it had occurred to him to label her “sweet.” The minuet ended and the dancers applauded the musicians, who rose to take a brief intermission. Nelson turned to make some remark to Fanny, only to discover that she had left his side and was walking towards Hollee. The captain offered her his glass and she took it, taking a sip of the wine.
“It’s warmer out there than it looks!” Fanny said, fanning herself and smiling. “Where were you? What happened with Captain Reeve?” she added, dropping her voice.
“He attempted to press me into the American navy,” Hollee said, returning her smile. “I told him I was not interested in becoming a traitor to the British crown, and I asked him to leave you alone.”
“Did you really?” Fanny said, looking a trifle disappointed.
“Don’t tell me you enjoy his company!” Hollee said.
“He has such thrilling stories, you know, they quite break up my day.”
“I assure you, he is making half of them up.”
“Oh really? And what about yourself—I hope you are not making up your stories as well.”
“I should hope not. I have enough drama in my life without embroidering upon it.”
“Captain Reeve does not embroider. He has a very difficult job, protecting such a new nation.”
“Fanny, next you shall tell me you are about to move to Boston and become a rebel against our king!”
“Oh, I don’t know about that.” Fanny waved her hand vaguely and a damp curl stirred in the night air. “It’s all rather confusing. I try to read the newspapers that Uncle gets from London, but they’re full of so many names, so many politicians shouting against one another. But when you describe it—when Captain Reeve explains it—why, then it makes perfect sense.”
“What makes perfect sense, if I may be so bold as to enquire?”
“Your justification for breaking the king’s law, naturally. After all you have been trading in these waters since you were sixteen, and your uncle before that. Why should you stop now just because the king—who has never been to the West Indies, so far as I know—passes a decree?”
“My God, Fanny, you are a patriot.”
“I’m certain that trying to avoid the British navy is not an enviable task—“
“Smugglers avoid the British navy, I am a legitimate trader. Why, even today I was boarded by Captain Mannington, who looked over my papers with a most scrutinizing eye before he let me go on my way. But not after a long and, I must say, tearful lecture about my duty to the British crown and the Acts which govern our lands—“
Hollee had let himself carry on a bit, watching a smile spread across Fanny’s face, so that he did not realize that Nelson had crept up to stand beside him until he heard the man say “Yes sir! By God! Just so, sir!” Hollee was so startled he nearly leapt back. He turned his head quickly and gazed at the naval man who was standing next to him, ramrod straight, his eyes shining with a fervent light. Fanny seemed nearly as surprised as Hollee was and after his outburst, Nelson seemed slightly embarrassed and more subdued. But he continued to stand as straight as a poker.
“Sir, I’ve no doubt you’ve heard that Captain Mannington was removed from the Boreas for failing to adequately enforce the king’s laws,” Nelson said quietly, delicately. Hollee nodded.
“I am sir, and I am sorry to hear it. The captain and I were good friends. Indeed, I have had the priviledge of knowing him for nearly my entire career. You have the misfortune, if I may make so bold, of filling a very large pair of shoes.”
Nelson nodded solemnly. “I have no doubt but that I am ready for the challenge,” he said, with no trace of self-mockery. “I am glad to hear that you at least understand the importance of extending England’s laws even to the most remote of her isles. It would pain me greatly, sir, now that I have had the pleasure of meeting you, of having to arrest you!” And he gave a sort of hoarse laugh, the first sound of merriment that had escaped from his lips that evening.
“But sir,” Fanny said, her expression going somewhat empty and blank, “would you not say it is unfair to those poor merchants who have plied their trade between America and the Indies for so long now, only to have them be cut off from their sources of income?”
“Unfair?” Nelson frowned again. “I do not say what is unfair or not. It is not up to me to decide such matters, it is up to me to enforce the law. It is Parliament--the king--who says what is fair and what is not—and he has made it most ardently clear that he does not wish rebel colonists to gain by trading in his waters.” Fanny’s question had made Nelson look at her suspiciously, but she continued to imitate her empty-headed cousin and smiled at him so that his fears were assuaged. “Shall we toast the king?” Nelson cried, reaching for a glass of wine. He leaned back and included his fellow Naval men in his question. “Gentlemen? I give you—the King!”
They drank heartily, and went on to toast the Queen, her children and England, and each time Nelson threw back a quantity of wine so that he had quite finished the glass by the end of it. Hollee on the other hand sipped quietly. After the toasting was done, the musicians picked up their instruments again and set off into another minuet. Before Nelson could ask, Hollee had scooped up Fanny’s arm and was leading her onto the dance floor.
So that was how it was going to be—there would be no bribing this man. All his fears were coming true. Nelson and he might agree on loyalty to the king, but their agreements faded the further away from London they got. Whereas Nelson saw only the firm outlines of red British colonies all over the world, where laws were meant to be enforced equally from Calcutta to Nevis, Hollee saw the holes where the map had worn through, where there was room to maneuver and room to make allowances.
Bell Hollee had been taught to dance by John Waggs, a secret that he guarded feverishly. Where John had learned to dance, Hollee had no idea, but the first mate had dragged him into the cabin one afternoon when he had received an invitation to a soiree and had said, “Now then. If you’re going to go mixing with polite society and quality folk, you’re going to need to learn your steps.” Hollee had been a sullen pupil and—to his horror—a very good one. Dancing had come as naturally as tying knots, as balancing on the deck of a rolling ship. After being accepted into “polite society” there had been no need for a refresher course, for the ladies, as soon as they saw what an excellent figure he cut on the dance floor, were eager to teach him the latest steps.
Fanny moved gracefully through the other ladies, her grey eyes demurely on him. They came together and sprang apart with a light touch, his hand on her back, now on her shoulder. Fanny was right, it was hot out here, but Hollee suspected his temperature also had something to do with his roiling mind. He forced himself to focus on his partners, moving down the line until it came time to swing Fanny around again. He was able to accomplish this much more easily than Nelson, being several inches taller than Fanny and a small, mean part of his mind was glad for it.
After that dance came another, then another, and Hollee found himself quite unwilling to let Fanny go, although the gentlemanly thing to do would have been to share her, as there were not enough females in the party. Nelson continued to stand by the buffet table, making small talk with the other captains, although he joined in for the last dance when Captain Hardy begged off an ardent suitor. Then it was time to go inside. The servants brought the gentlemen glasses of port and several of the ladies made noises about going home. But Mistress Mary had been practicing a new solo and she was determined to end the evening with a recital. So the company ranged itself on a selection of chairs in the parlor and paid polite attention.
Fanny accompanied her cousin. Josiah, defying the odds and his inclination towards sleepiness, had been appointed page-turner and was sitting next to her. His back was straighter than Nelson’s, his eyes feverishly bright with pride at being given this most important task. The song began, a quavery one about love lost or some such nonsense. Hollee was fairly certain he had heard the song on Aruba several weeks ago. Mary held her hand theatrically to her bosom and squeezed a well-timed tear out of one eye, her audience sighing with appreciation.
But Hollee was distracted by Fanny. Something about her had changed, he didn’t know what. It felt as though—it felt as though he was seeing her for the first time, although he had been looking at her steadily for the past hour. Something about the arc of her neck, the glow of the candles on her face, even her small nods to her tiny son were painfully familiar and yet at the same time, undeniably new. He felt the same way he did the first time he had stepped on the Windsong as her captain. They had just buried old Hollee and he had returned to the ship to take her into St. Kitt’s for a new cargo, but the second he stepped aboard the familiar boards they seemed to ring with a new importance and expectations. Yes, that was the feeling exactly—and as before, he had no explanation for it.
The song ended. Applause—Hollee joined in a beat too late. Mary gave several gracious curtseys and then she and Fanny rose to see their guests out the door. The carriages had been made ready while Mary was singing, and they were standing outside. President Herbert was in his element, shaking hands and pounding men on the back, extracting promises of return, assuring everyone that they would meet again soon. The furor was quite overwhelming—so much so that Nebuchanezzer had forgotten Hollee’s hat. He apologized profusely and shot off to fetch it.
“I daresay you’ve had enough on your mind tonight,” Hollee said when the man returned. Nebuchanezzer bowed and Mary came forward, swooping in to kiss Hollee on the cheek.
“You were magnificent! Squiring cousin Fan about all evening. What a gentleman!” she cooed. “You must come back again. I shall speak to Father—we must have another party soon!” Hollee was grateful that Fanny seemed distracted with Josiah and did not hear this. He smiled and nodded.
“Another party?” Herbert boomed, “Capital idea. Just give me long enough to lay in another supply of cheeses—these fellows have quite cleaned me out, but I daresay you can’t blame them, eh?” He grinned and was greeted by shouts of approbation. There was a loud crack! and the carriages began to move off. Herbert shook Hollee’s hand, his face red with excitement and too much brandy. Already Nebuchanezzer was waiting patiently to take his master to bed. “So good to see you, man! What a night, eh? Eh?”
Hollee had nothing to say to this, so he merely attempted to meet the force in Herbert’s grip, with no success. Herbert nodded one last time and turned away, Mary swooping up to meet him.
Hollee turned to look for her and she was there.
“I thought I might walk with you until the end of the drive,” Fanny said softly. “If you don’t mind.” Hollee offered her his arm. Josiah scampered on in front of them and Fanny waved away the nurse.
It was darker in front of the house, the road a silver path through the black trees. They paused, allowing their eyes to adjust to the darkness.
“Josiah, don’t go too far ahead, there are tigers in the forest!” Fanny warned. The little boy came running back. He launched himself into Hollee’s arms, wrapping his arms around Hollee’s neck and nearly unseating his hat.
“Are there really? Really tigers?” he asked anxiously.
“Oh now,” Hollee said frowning. “No. No I should think there are not. No, I think they were all eaten by the dragon, weren’t they, Mrs. Nisbit?” Josiah, terrified, burrowed into his shoulder while Fanny hid a smile.
They walked on, cool night breezes swirling around their ankles.
“What did you think of Nelson?” Fanny asked quietly, breaking the silence. Hollee frowned, he did not like the man invading their private minutes together.
“I did not like him,” Hollee said honestly, “I found him too ambitious.”
Fanny laughed. “I rather thought he reminded me of you,” she said. “You’re both very proud, very eager to do what is proper and right. Although you have different ideas about what is right and what is proper.” She patted his arm to show that she meant no offense.
“Do you find me proud, then? I did not mean to give offence.”
“I do not find your pride offensive. It is endearing, because you are so proud of your ship and your travels. You are very eager to please.”
“Am I now.”
“You want everyone to love you.”
“Fanny, I must confess, the more you strive to explain yourself, the less I like the explanation.”
“Oh, pray, do not be offended. I am merely elaborating on my meditation of your character. You are steady and proud of your steadfastness.”
“I sound like a very boring fellow.”
“Not at all. Did you see how Nelson flitted about, talking of his accomplishments to anyone who would listen? Now, he is a proud fellow, but proud of himself, of what he’s accomplished. I don’t think he had been there twenty minutes before he was spouting off about some action with the American navy, when everyone knows their navy is nothing to speak of. And he is a terribly poor dancer.”
Hollee was inexplicably pleased with this statement.
“I found your piano playing most enjoyable.”
“And you, Master Josiah, your page-turning was to be commended.”
But Master Josiah had fallen asleep on Hollee’s shoulder and was curled up there like a worn-out puppy who’s been playing too fiercely. Hollee lifted his eyes to Fanny’s face and found she was staring at him with a sad half-smile on her face.
“Tuppence for your thoughts.”
“Oh, you’ll think I’m silly. Just a mother’s foolishness.”
“When have I ever thought you silly?”
“Well then. I was merely thinking how similar Josiah’s hair colour is to yours.”
Hollee was quiet for a second. “Does he take after his father at all? I always thought he looked rather like you.”
“No, Mr. Nisbet was much given to fat, he had very round cheeks. Not like my little whippet here.” She brushed some of Josiah’s curls out of his face. Hollee realized she was fighting off some inner emotion.
“Fanny, what is it?” A war had broken out within him—part of Hollee’s soul urgently wanted to know what could have made Fanny look so sad, and another part of him warned that if he asked this question their friendship would never be the same. But what kind of friend would he be if he did not ask it?
They had reached the end of the drive and Fanny sat down on the low stone wall there. She slipped off her dancing slippers and sunk her feet into the sand, just as Hollee had done hours previously. “My uncle has sworn he will not feed me past the end of the summer,” she began quietly. “He is quite adamant that I must marry and get out of his house, that he has fulfilled his duty as my relative, but that the time has come as he put it. He says—oh, you mustn’t think harshly of him, Bell, he means well, but he is under a terrible amount of strain and he says things like this when he is upset. He says the most terrible things and shouts at me and suggests that perhaps I do not want another husband that I am not trying like…like Mary…” Fanny’s eyes remained dry, but her voice trailed off and she sighed. “I am very sorry to burden you with this, Bell, but I know I can trust you to keep a secret for me. It is quite embarrassing. The truth is, I have never found another man I wished to have as a husband. I was quite happy with Mr. Nisbit, we—“ but here her voice abandoned her completely and she blushed. She might be willing to take Hollee into her confidences, but there were still things it was not decent to speak about.
Hollee stood in front of her awkwardly. He had begun to grow warm where Josiah was lying against his breast, the hot little body pressed into his cream-coloured waistcoat and borrowed jacket. The child was draped over him so trustingly, so naturally that Hollee was acutely aware that when Fanny looked at him, she would not be able to tell easily where her son ended and Hollee began. Holle was also aware that this was a moment when something could be said—something should be said, for she was looking up at him so trustingly, so beseechingly. But there was—there was— That newness about her had not left her, and it made her beautiful in the moonlight.
“I am very sorry for your worries,” he said. His voice was loud. It cut into the tranquility of the night. Fanny’s brows furrowed; that was not quite it. “I wish there was something I could do to help you.”
Something closed up in Fanny’s face and she smiled politely. “Yes, well. Thank you for listening to me. You always were a good friend.” She reached up for the sleeping Josiah. For a fleeting second their hands brushed against each other, and then Fanny leaned in and brushed her lips against the corner of his mouth. She had aimed there deliberately, allowing him to choose whether it should be a gentle peck on the cheek or a romantic, full-blooded kiss, but he did not turn his head, and her lips landed on the corner of his, her touch as light as a feather. Although she was the one who had instigated it, she became uncertain, pulling Josiah closely to her while she watched his face. For a second, Hollee thought she was going to shake his hand.
“Good night,” she said, backing away into the darkness.
“Farewell,” said he, lifting his hat to her. The kiss—and her smell—lingered in the darkness like powder after cannon fire. His heart was leaping about in his chest, adrenaline surging through his veins. Her perfect figure was a white shadow disappearing as she moved away from him, but he could not stop himself from watching her. Good God she was in love with him! The sudden knowledge hit him like a rolling wave and nearly knocked the breath out of him. An uncertain, unbidden grin rose up to his lips, only to be wiped away as more thoughts crowded in. He could marry her. He could—she wanted him to marry her. The stupidity that occasionally blinds men lifted like a curtain and he saw each of their previous meetings in a new light, each look, each touch, each laugh, each shared grin-- He could marry her. He could run after her right now, sweep her up in his arms, kiss her, wake Josiah, laugh, whisper into her ear that he wanted her, wanted her for his wife, beg her to be his—
Bell Hollee squared his shoulders in his familiar way.
And set off up the road back to the port and the Windsong.