Chapter One

 

 

January 1803

 

NO ONE saw it coming. The only warning of attack was the shrill whistle of a cannonball, a second before the schooner Mermaid shuddered under its impact. Splinters flew from the starboard bow as a puff of smoke on the high bluff they were passing betrayed the attacker’s position.

“Hard aport!” shouted the Mermaid’s captain, William Marshall, running back to take the wheel from his bosun, Barrow. “All hands!”

“Aye, sir!”

“All hands” was a pitiful fighting force. The Mermaid was a private vessel and had only four small guns—swivel guns, at that. They could not defend themselves against a land-based cannon, and in fact, they had nothing aboard that could reach their attackers. But his men—twenty of them, barely enough to work the vessel while their mates sprang to the guns—responded as though they were still on the frigate where he’d first commanded them as a midshipman—his crew, men with whom he’d survived five years of war.

Marshall had not expected anything like this. They’d been sailing on a quick and supposedly routine mission to pick up an agent of His Majesty’s Secret Service from the coast of Spain, and the rendezvous had been uneventful. A lone fisherman in a rowboat had caught no one’s attention, and he’d been brought aboard without fuss. All had seemed well—until now.

Marshall pulled the wheel with all his strength, dragging the Mermaid as close to the cold, powerful wind as he dared, ticking off the seconds in his mind. He held the schooner on the new course, fighting the wheel, watching over his shoulder until he saw the puff of smoke that signaled the next shot fired.

He let the wheel run through his hands, freeing the rudder to bring her sharply about, bracing himself as the sloop wheeled over and her sails filled once again. The second cannonball splashed harmlessly a few yards off the port bow. He brought her back into a steady run, still counting off the seconds. The trick had worked—but it would not work a second time.

It wouldn’t have to, though. By the time the crew could reload, the swift-running Mermaid would be out of range. If he could get beyond the fishing vessel—a weathered schooner not much larger than the Mermaid herself—that lay between them and the open sea, they’d be too poor a target to even attempt. “Damage?” he called to Barrow.

“Rail’s clean off, sir, and we took on some water when she went over, but she’s got at least a foot clear of the waterline for now.”

“Will we need to fother—Damn!”

The apparently harmless craft, which they had passed on their way into shore, was now bristling with guns; the notion of passing close to the other vessel was no longer an option. As the Mermaid came into small-arms range, the enemy began to fire.

At least this was an enemy their little guns could reach. “Fire as you bear,” Marshall shouted.

He could have sworn he heard a similar order from the other ship, and the pop-pop of the small arms was punctuated by the boom of an undersized cannon, most likely a swivel gun like their own. One lucky shot was all either of them would require, and the fight would be over. On his present course, he would be past them in only a few minutes. But with the wind as it was, he could not veer too far away without risking that damaged section of bow. If the Mermaid dipped enough to allow the hole in her bow to scoop up water, not only would she be impossible to steer, they might well founder, and if any of his men went into this cold January sea….

He put that fear out of his mind, concentrating instead on holding her steady in the strong current, hearing a yelp as one of his men at the starboard gun caught a flying projectile. His gun crews were at work, though, even with their pitiful popguns, and he grinned as the enemy snipers ducked down below their own railing. Just like old times. A pity they weren’t actually supposed to engage the enemy….

Then, amid the uproar of conflict, he caught a glimpse of a familiar figure running about in the smoke and flying lead, and his heart stopped within him. “Davy, to me!”

David Archer ran up, carrying a rifle. “Thought we’d need this. Orders?”

Marshall’s hands stayed steady on the wheel, but his mind was gibbering, flooded with memories of Davy lying near death, struck down during the last battle they’d fought together, carried below with blood staining his white uniform waistcoat. His throat was so tight he could hardly speak. “Get below.”

Davy frowned. “Sorry, what?”

A spent bullet ricocheted off the binnacle, and Marshall’s whole body jerked in reaction. “Get below. Now, Davy. Go! I can’t—”

Davy glanced about the deck, bit his lip, and nodded.

As he disappeared down the stair to the captain’s cabin, Marshall’s attention returned to the matter at hand. The fishing boat—Frenchman or Spaniard, it made no difference, really; that neutral Portuguese flag they flew was a joke—was coming about, making ready to pursue them.

“Aim for her sails!” he shouted. But the words were barely out when he felt a ball slam into their own hull, and the wheel shuddered in his hands. The Mermaid kept moving, though, gallant little craft that she was. He prayed the damage was above the waterline, something they could repair, and then they shot past the other boat and were out into open water.

He whirled at the sound of a shot just behind him, so close his ears rang. Davy stood there, his face grim. “You didn’t see the sniper in their chains, did you? He had you dead in his sights.”

Their stern-chaser boomed as if in emphasis, and the fishing boat faltered as the ball went home, carrying away their bowsprit and staysail.

“Thank you,” Marshall managed. They were out of range now, and so long as they could keep moving, they would have their passenger back to the Endymion within a few hours and make at least part of the trip back to England under her protection. Though why anyone would bother to attack them, and under a neutral flag, was the real question. He could think of only one possible answer, and he didn’t like it at all, but he had no time to spare for speculation now.

“Take the wheel,” he told Davy, and hurried over to see about the damage to his ship and crew. The puzzle of why they had been attacked was secondary to another, far more critical matter. In the midst of a battle, he had been completely distracted from the matter at hand—life and death, his ship and all who sailed aboard her. That was unconscionable.

Marshall had suspected that this would happen when the treaty was broken and war resumed. He had feared it would happen; worse than that, he had known it would. And it left him with an insoluble dilemma.

William Marshall was a Commander in His Majesty’s Navy. He was also, against all laws of God and man, David Archer’s lover. As his own behavior had just proven beyond all doubt, he cared more for Davy than for any living soul, or even for the ship under his command.

With Davy aboard, Marshall could not command a ship of war. And he knew how to do nothing else.

He did know enough to stand back and let Barrow direct the immediate repairs, and to wait until his bosun stepped back with a nod of approval to ask whether the damage could be mended.

“Aye, we can fix her, sir, well enough for a few days, but we haven’t materials enough to do a proper job. Another close call like that, or a bad storm, and we might lose her.”

He had to believe Barrow. The son of a carpenter, Barrow had gone to sea as a carpenter’s mate and eventually wound up as bosun aboard the Valiant, a two-deck man-o’-war that was the last ship on which Marshall and Davy had served together. Barrow had forgotten more about the structure of sailing vessels than Marshall had ever learned; if he said the Mermaid was safe for now, that was a load off her captain’s mind. The damage would slow their arrival at the rendezvous, but the weather looked to hold fair enough, and they had allowed time for such delays. They could not afford another close call. He would just have to hope that whoever had attacked them had expected to succeed and not made plans for a second attempt.

Two of his men were wounded, as well—neither fatally, though he’d lose both the Owen twins if Joey Owen’s broken arm required he be set ashore. They’d no other family, and Jules would not leave his brother in such a pinch. If the Mermaid were a frigate, with a full complement of crew, that would be no problem; Joey could be put on light duty until he healed. The other seaman, Thorne, had a nasty cut across his side, but the oaken splinter had not gone deep, thank God. Marshall wished he had a surgeon aboard and was grateful that the Endymion was waiting for them.

Once the damage to ship and crew was seen to, Marshall’s thoughts returned to his more serious concern. He was almost grateful for their passenger, who had been stowed in a hastily slung hammock in the cabin that Marshall generally shared only with his lover. The man had appeared exhausted when he’d come aboard, and his presence in their sanctuary meant there was no place that would afford even a minimum of privacy, for conversation or anything else.

What are we going to do? He saw that question in Davy’s eyes, too, when he returned to take the helm. “She’s all right for now,” he said. “We should rendezvous with Endymion by tomorrow evening. With her help we can fix ourselves up. Any sign of more trouble?”

“Clear as far as the eye can see,” Davy replied, waving a hand at a horizon occupied by nothing save a few seagulls. “Do you have any idea what all that was about?”

“Our passenger must not have been as clever or careful as he thought he was.” Will shrugged. “If this is peace, then give me a nice, simple war. At least when a Frenchman honors you with a broadside, there’s no question of his motives.”

His lover smiled wryly. “I suppose I ought to apologize for coming back up against your orders,” he said. “But honestly, I cannot be sorry.”

“I’d have done the same,” Marshall said. “It’s of no consequence.”

Davy gave him a sharp look. “We both know it is,” he said, “but there’s nothing to be done about it now. I’ll stay below if the situation arises again.”

Marshall nodded. “It had better not.”

 

 

THEIR LUCK held good in making their rendezvous with Endymion, and Marshall’s poor Mermaid—and her crew—were sufficiently patched up to make the trip back to Portsmouth. The frigate escorted them a good part of the way home, and while the weather displayed all the usual charm of the season—gray, cold, and damp—they were spared any dangerous storms.

David Archer was glad of it. His mind was still in a turmoil, as he knew Will’s must also be, at the truth revealed to both of them in that brief skirmish in the Bay of Biscay. He had always thought Will was exaggerating his concern about their serving together—after all the battles they had been through, David had expected a return to the old habits of brothers-in-arms. But he had been mistaken. Will, once fearless in battle, seemed unable to detach himself from an anxious worry over his lover’s safety. Whatever might happen once they reached land, David knew one thing was certain: he would be leaving the ship. Leaving Will.

The very thought made him feel hollow inside. Granted, there had never been a guarantee that they would stay together—or live very long if they did—but once Will had attained the rank of Commander, he would have the right to choose his own Ship’s Master, and Archer was a qualified navigator. They should have been able to stay together, even though they might rarely have the chance to share their love in a physical way. At least they could have been together.

No more.

The presence of their passenger was a trial. Mr. George (why could these cloak-and-dagger gentlemen not find less obvious pseudonyms?) kept mostly to himself, though during the meals he shared with Captain Marshall and Mr. St. John—David’s nom de (temporarily suspended) guerre—he was quite willing to share information about those parts of Spain through which he had traveled. George was pleasant enough, in an undistinguished way that probably served him well in his occupation. His discourse was interesting and potentially useful, but Archer found himself not infrequently wishing Mr. George to the devil. These last few precious days together, and their tiny refuge was crowded by that third hammock, slung between them like the cocoon of some invasive moth.

They stole a few kisses when George was on deck and they chanced to be in their cabin together. That was all they dared attempt. But they did not talk about the decision looming in their future, or much of anything else.

When at last Portsmouth came into view on the horizon, Archer felt able to breathe again. Since their roles of yacht-owner and hired captain were not official Royal Navy ranks, Will was not required to sleep aboard. They would be able to get a room somewhere together, if only for a night. And, like as not, spend it trying to decide how to explain to Sir Percy, the man who had recruited them into the Secret Service and who gave them their assignments, why it was that one of them, at least, would have to resign.

One of us…. Me, of course. It has to be.

As he had told Will months ago, David Archer felt no regret at the idea of leaving the Navy. The choice had been forced on him by circumstances; he had not yet attained his majority when his father had decided to buy him a commission in his brother’s regiment, and he’d had no other way to support himself. At the time, the Navy had seemed his only alternative, very much the lesser of two evils.

He knew Will felt otherwise. Small wonder. Will was an orphan, with no family in England—no family at all, really. He had some cousins off in America, but the war of rebellion had apparently strained those family ties to the breaking point before Will was even born. The only connections he had ashore were intimately related to the service. For all practical purposes, the Navy was Will’s family as well as his career.

David himself had family in abundance. With two elder brothers and four sisters, plus a growing number of nieces and nephews, he could hardly call himself solitary. And yet, apart from his mother and his sister Amelia, the only person who really mattered to him was Will. They had come so close to being parted last year, when Will’s fear and guilt had driven him away. Had Will been right? Was he only drawing out the inevitable ending?

The wind was blowing them inexorably home. Ships moored in Portsmouth Harbor were visible now, the buildings on shore growing larger, the antlike creatures scurrying about becoming visibly human as the Mermaid drew near. The signal crew was sending up flags, firing a salute…. All the usual rituals of coming into port at the conclusion of a successful cruise were drained of meaning by his apprehension. He had never known so bleak a homecoming.

The hope of some time alone with Will was dashed as soon as they set foot on shore, where a messenger met them with a courteous but mandatory invitation to meet Sir Percy at the earliest possible moment.

 

 

IT WAS a pity, it really was. If only the old fellow had not made the fatal mistake of being the firstborn son, this would not have been necessary. He could have played the squire dawn till dusk and tended to all the tedious chores about the place. But the poor devil had been born first, so there was nothing to do but clear him out of the way.

And it was so simple, easier than he’d expected. That Frog Lepage knew what he was about when he designed the silex carbine. Beautifully accurate, a gentleman’s weapon. Merci, monsieur, and thanks to the luck of the battlefield in turning up such a prize. Now to trust to luck once more, and finish the job.