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Authors: Mary Nichols

Tags: #Romance, #Historical Romance

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BOOK: In the Commodore's Hands
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‘Do you think they’ll fit?’

‘Good God, man! Did you think I had time to pick and choose? They will have to do.’

‘Where are we going?’ Sam asked as they rode out of the town and took the road to Rouen.

‘There’s a barn just along here. I noticed it this afternoon. We’ll lie up there. Tomorrow is going to be a busy day and if all goes well, we shall spend our next night at sea.’

‘Amen to that,’ Sam said fervently, following Jay into the barn and dismounting.

The next minute he had thrown himself down on a pile of straw and was soon snoring. Jay joined him on the straw, but lay wide awake, going over every move they would make the next day again and again, trying to foresee the
pitfalls, deciding how to overcome them. If his grandfather and Lisette failed to reach the rendezvous with the boat, they could not leave; if Georges did not arrive at his allotted place and time with the Giradet carriage, they could be in trouble. They would have to take the prison van down to the shore and that would be cumbersome and slow and attract unwelcome attention. There were so many things that could go wrong and he had to rely on others doing their part.

In the navy he had known he could command obedience, but could you command obedience from coachmen like Georges, who owed him no allegiance and saw the Revolution as a way to set him free? Or from a young lady with strong views of her own and a reluctance to leave France’s shores without her father?

Lisette was like no other woman he had ever met. She was a strange mixture of the
ingénue
and the worldly-wise, which was somehow penetrating the hedge he had grown around himself and he was not sure he wanted that to happen. It was far too disturbing.

He woke Sam before dawn and they donned the uniforms; his was too small and Sam’s too large, but they would have to do. Then he sent Sam down the road to watch out for the prison
van. He hoped Lisette had been right about the time and it would be along soon and that the papers he had stolen along with the uniforms would be enough to persuade the guard to hand the Comte over to him. This waiting about was the worst part. It was already daylight and he wondered if the prison authorities had changed their minds or found the two guards and put two and two together. He had been banking on the prison van setting out before that happened.

The sun rose high in the sky and still there was no sign of it. Had he been wrong and it was not on this road at all? He didn’t fancy chasing after the van all the way to Paris. He didn’t fancy going to Paris. Lisette and his grandfather should be on board the
Lady Amy
by now, waiting for him. He had given instructions that the boat was to wait no longer than two hours for him, not even that if there was trouble. It was going to be tight, very tight.

Chapter Four

T
he portmanteaux, those of Lisette and Hortense and another belonging to Sir John, together with the jewel-stuffed cushion, had been transferred from Sir John’s carriage to the ship’s boat and Lieutenant Sandford was waiting to help the passengers into it. Lisette was reluctant to comply. She stood on the beach looking inland, waiting for a glimpse of her carriage arriving with her father on board. There were one or two people on the road above the beach and a cart wending its way into town, but no sign of the carriage.

‘Mademoiselle,’
the lieutenant said, ‘I must insist you allow me to help you into the boat now.’

‘Let me wait a little longer.’ It was not the
first time she had said that; it had been repeated at intervals ever since they had arrived on the foreshore and each time her worry increased. What had happened? Had Monsieur Drymore failed? Had the plan backfired and everyone been taken back to the prison? Had they even left the prison? Or, God forbid, had they all been killed? She could not stand still and kept going back towards the road and then returning to the boat in increasing despair.

‘I cannot,’ the lieutenant said. ‘The Commodore’s orders are to come back for him and he will be mightily displeased if he arrives and I am still here with you. The boat is small, it cannot accommodate everyone in one trip.’

‘Then take Sir John and Hortense and leave me here to wait.’

‘I won’t go without you,’ Hortense said.

‘Lisette, you will put the whole operation in jeopardy,’ Sir John said. ‘We must follow Jay’s instructions to the letter or all will be lost. He will be in a great hurry, perhaps pursued by guards, and the boat must be waiting for him. If it is not, how is he to get your father to safety?’

His words went home. With a last despairing look towards the road, Lisette turned and allowed herself to be helped aboard, followed by Hortense and Sir John. The lieutenant did
not need to tell the two oarsmen to cast off, they were already pulling away when he scrambled in behind them. Lisette continued to gaze towards the receding shore as they were rowed away from the land of her birth and from her beloved father. Tears were streaming down her face and she could not stop them. No one tried to comfort her. The men did not know how and Hortense was sobbing herself.

‘They’re on the way at last.’ Sam came back into the barn where Jay was waiting with the horses. He had begun to think their plan had failed and they would have to return to Honfleur to find out what had happened and that meant the
Lady Amy
would sail without them. How, then, could they free the Comte and return to England? Never having been one to give up on an enterprise, it did not occur to him to abandon his mission and make for the shore and the safety of his yacht. ‘They will be here in a couple of shakes.’

‘How many?’

‘A driver, two mounted National Guard and whoever is in the van.’

‘Are they the guards we know?’

‘I could not tell from the distance. We might have a fight on our hands if they are.’

‘So be it. Are your pistols primed?’

‘Aye, aye, sir.’

‘Then let us go and meet them, but do not fire unless you have to. I want this done without bloodshed and without the guards knowing we are English.’

They trotted down the road and Jay held up his hand to stop the vehicle, which was no more than a lumbering old coach with its windows blacked out. ‘You have taken your time,’ he said, thankful the guards were strangers. ‘We thought to meet you on the road long before this.’

‘Why, what’s amiss?’

‘You have the
ci-devant
Comte Giradet there?’

‘Yes. What do you want with him?’

‘We have been sent from Paris to take him to the Palais de Justice.’ He took a sheet of paper from his pocket and held it up, but did not offer it to the guards. ‘Here are our orders.’

‘We don’t know anything about that,’ the older of the two said. ‘Take him to La Force prison, that’s was what we were told. Nothing was said about being met.’

‘I cannot help it if your superiors forget their instructions,’ Jay said.

‘It is hardly to be wondered at,’ the second
guard put in. ‘The
maréchaussée
who should have been bringing him failed to turn up for duty. We were told to bring him at a moment’s notice, not even given time to tell our wives.’

‘You will be relieved not to have to go all the way to Paris, then,’ Jay said, putting the paper back into his pocket. He was tempted to look into the coach, but decided against it in case the Comte recognised him and gave the game away. ‘Who is in with the prisoner?’

‘No one.’

‘You were not afraid he might escape?’

They both laughed. ‘He would not get very far,’ the older one said. ‘He is an old man and too feeble to run. You will be lucky if he does not expire before you reach Paris, then all this fuss will have been for nought.’

Jay risked a quick peep at the old man; it would be a terrible blunder to rescue the wrong man, but it was undoubtedly the Comte who was leaning back with his eyes shut. He hardly seemed to be aware that the coach had stopped; he certainly showed no interest in what was happening in the road. His condition had deteriorated since the few days since Jay had seen him in prison and that worried him. They had to move fast, because once the guard returned to Honfleur the cry would go up and
they would be pursued. He hoped fervently the Comte could withstand the jolting.

‘Off you go back to your wives,’ Jay told the guards. ‘No doubt they will be pleased to see you.’

They hesitated, but Jay’s air of authority, their disinclination to go the distance to Paris and the thought of returning home to a hot dinner finally persuaded them. They turned back the way they had come.

Jay and Sam turned their horses to ride alongside the vehicle. ‘On you go, driver,’ he said to the coachman.

‘Pity you didn’t bring a driver too,’ he grumbled as they set off at the pace of a snail. Jay knew he could not hurry; the guards were watching them go and, until they were out of sight, they must continue on the road to Rouen.

‘Faster,’ he told the driver when the old guards had disappeared from sight. ‘We will be a month of Sundays getting to Paris at this rate.’

The driver cracked his whip over the horses’ backs, but they were old and skinny and although they tried, the pace hardly increased. Jay hoped and prayed Georges and the Giradet carriage had waited. It was long past the time they had expected to make the rendezvous.

Thankfully the sea was calm and the yacht rode easily at anchor. The rowing boat which had brought Lisette on board had gone back to the shore to wait for the rest of the party. She could see it on the beach, rocking on the slight swell.

‘Take this, miss.’ Lieutenant Sandford offered his telescope. ‘You will be able to see better.’

She put the glass to her eye. The two sailors in the boat were resting on their oars. A few people moved up and down the beach, picking up shells and seaweed. There was traffic on the road, horses, carts, an odd carriage or two, but not the longed-for carriage. ‘How long will they wait?’ she asked. She had been standing at the rail, refusing to go below, for what seemed hours.

‘The Commodore said two hours after the appointed time, but it has already been longer than that. I shall have to recall the men soon, before they begin to attract unwanted attention. We cannot afford to lose two of our crew, quite apart from causing a diplomatic incident. In the present unsettled situation it could even lead to war between our two countries. At the moment we are supposed to be neutral.’

‘I wish I had not allowed myself to be persuaded to come aboard. I feel as though I have abandoned my poor father. I shall be miserable not knowing what has become of him. It would be better to share his fate.’

‘I understand, miss, but I have my orders.’

‘But you would not leave without the Commodore, surely? How will he get home if you leave him?’

‘No doubt he will find a way.’

She was reminded of his words:
if we do not come, then the chances are we have perished in the attempt
. It did not bear thinking about. ‘Just five more minutes,’ she said.

‘The Commodore will skin me alive if I disobey him. I shall already be in trouble for waiting so long.’ If he, too, thought of the dreadful possibility that they were all lost, he did not voice it. He beckoned to a sailor who was carrying a small flag. ‘Call them back, Sadler.’

The man raised the flag.

‘Wait!’ she shouted, scanning the shore through the telescope. ‘There is a carriage on the road. It looks like ours.’

The rowers had already taken a few strokes from the shore. She watched in dismay as the coach stopped, two people got down from it and lifted something from the interior. It looked like
the Commodore and Mr Roker, but the bundle they were carrying? Surely that was not her father? Was he ill? Wounded?

They waded out to the boat, which had stopped and waited for them, just as two
maréchaussée
galloped up and began shooting. With her heart pumping, she watched as the two men with their burden tumbled into the boat with shots spattering all round them. Not until they were out of range did she let her breath go.

Slowly they approached until they bumped against the hull. By leaning over the rail she could see down into the boat. Surely the bundle at the bottom was not her father?

‘Send the chair down.’ Sam Roker was standing up, steadying himself by hanging on to the ship’s ladder hanging over the side. ‘The old man cannot climb and the Commodore is wounded.’

Lisette was politely ushered to one side as a chair was lowered from a hoist and slowly, inch by inch, it brought her father to the deck. It
was
her father. This emaciated man, with the snow-white hair and beard and hands like claws, was really Papa. She watched as the chair was set down on the deck and then ran to kneel
at his feet, eyes streaming with tears. ‘Papa. Oh, Papa! Thank God you are safe.’

The seamen were going to send the chair back for Jay, but before they could do so he appeared at The top of the rope ladder, pulling himself up with his right arm. The left hung uselessly at his side. The sleeve was ripped and covered in blood. ‘Set sail before we lose wind and tide,’ he commanded, though it was an effort to speak. ‘I am going below. See to the Comte’s comfort.’ Helped by Sam, who had followed him on board, he staggered away, leaving Lisette to help her father.

‘Michel?’ he queried. ‘Is he with us?’

‘No, Papa, he is still with the King. I have seen him and he is well.’

‘He is a good boy.’

‘Yes.’

It was always Michel he thought of first, she mused as two sailors carried him down to a cabin set aside for him, not a word about how she had managed in his absence.

Only when he had been comfortably ensconced in his cabin, had been given a light repast, which she fed him spoonful by spoonful, and he had fallen asleep did she go in search of
Jay. By that time the land had disappeared and they were sailing north east with a fair wind.

Sam let her into the cabin where Jay lay propped up in a bunk that seemed too short for him. The servant had stripped off his coat and shirt and bandaged his upper arm and shoulder. His broad chest was bare. ‘Mademoiselle, you should not be here,’ he said as Sam disappeared. ‘It is hardly proper. I am not dressed.’

She ignored this objection and, looking round, saw a stool which she pulled to the side of the cot. She realised as soon as she sat on it that it made her even nearer his bare chest. She had never been close to a man in that stage of undress before and became almost mesmerised by the narrow thatch of dark hair that started just below his throat and disappeared into the top of his breeches. It was having a strange effect on her breathing and making her feel hot. She forced herself to look up into his face to meet quizzical blue eyes.

‘I had to come to thank you,’ she said, making herself sound calm. ‘There are no words to express my gratitude.’

‘Then do not try.’

‘I must. Without you, Papa would surely have died, if not at the hands of the court, then of neglect
and starvation. I do not know how I shall ever repay you.’

‘I want no payment, Miss Giradet. How is your father?’

‘He is very weak and confused and I am not sure if he knows where he is, but your men have provided food and drink and I helped him to eat.’

‘Good. We must build up his strength.’

‘I am hopeful that with careful nursing and good food he will recover and be his old self.’ She paused to look at him, though doing so brought the warmth back to her face and made her tremble. Beneath his tan, his face had a greyish look. ‘But you have been hurt. I would not have had that happen for worlds. According to Monsieur Roker, if you had not been protecting Papa with your own body he would have been killed, which makes me doubly in your debt.’

‘It is nothing but a scratch. Sam dug the ball out of me and I think I will live.’ This last was said with a wry smile which turned to a grimace when he tried to move.

‘Are you in great pain?’

‘No, a little discomfort, that is all.’

She stood up to reach across him to make his pillow more comfortable and found her face
inches from his. It would be so easy to put her lips to his in a kiss. The thought flitted across her brain and vanished, but she saw, by the look in his eyes, that he had read her mind and was amused by it. She sat down again quickly and tried to compose herself. Talk, she admonished herself, say something, distract him, distract yourself.

‘If anything I have done has made matters worse for you, then I am truly sorry,’ she said, averting her gaze from his. ‘But tell me what happened. You were so late coming I was afraid everything had gone wrong and you had all perished.’

He told her about stealing the uniforms and the long wait and the confrontation with the guards and the Comte’s struggle when they realised they would have to manhandle him from one coach to the other because he had grown too weak to walk. ‘We were dressed as
maréchaussée
and he thought we were taking him out to kill him,’ he said. ‘Your coachman calmed him and he consented to being put in his own carriage. We set off for the rendezvous at a fierce lick and for once I hoped my orders had been disobeyed and the boat had waited.’

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