Horatio Hornblower felt a cold trickle of sweat run down his back beneath his dark blue coat with white facings and newly shined brass buttons, which denoted his rank as Lieutenant in His Majesty's Navy. His neckcloth felt like it was choking him, and he reached one finger up to ease the constriction. He realized, with disgust, that his palms were slick with sweat. "God, Hornblower!" he muttered to himself. "What have you got to be afraid of?"
What, indeed? He'd felt less fear while riding through the fog in the captured French ship La Reve, close enough to Spanish ships carrying 72 guns to reach out an touch the dons. But the cause of his present fear was not the Spanish or even the French fleet, but a brilliantly lit room filled with music, laughter, and the swirling skirts of fashionable ladies. "How did we get ourselves into this, Archie?" he asked Acting Lieutenant Kennedy, who stood just behind him in the doorway. "We didn't get ourselves into it, Horatio. We're under orders, remember? I believe the Captain said, 'Enjoy yourselves, now, or I'll see you in irons before the night is through!'" Horatio turned to his friend, smiling in spite of himself. Archie's voice had gruffened until it was a perfect imitation of their commanding officer, Captain Sir Edward Pellew, of HMS Indefatigable.
An irritated voice behind them brought them back to reality. "Are you gentlemen going to be standing in the doorway all evening?" Ignoring the young officers' apologies, a fashionably dressed man brushed past them and disappeared into the crowd. "I suppose this means we have to go inside, Archie," Horatio said with resignation. He heard Archie sigh in reply as they inched into the room, looking for some corner where they might be able to stand until the captain saw fit to relieve them of this duty. They chose a spot just in front of some potted palm trees, hoping to remain unnoticed.
It was not to be. Both men started, violently, when a feminine hand grasped an arm of each. "Why Mr. Haitch, Mr. Kay - I never thought to see the two of you in a London ballroom. What brings you so far from the sea?"
Hornblower recognized the voice at once, and stammered out, "Miss Cobham ....er...I mean,...Your Grace..."
She laughed, lightly. "You may call me Miss Cobham, Horatio, since I am here as myself this evening. The room might get a little crowded with duchesses, if I were not, since the real Duchess of Wharfedale is in attendance." She nodded over at a large knot of gentlemen on the other side of the room. Horatio heard the sound of a fan playfully slapping at a man's arm, and hear a distinctively Yorkshire accented voice say, "Ye're wicked, you are, Sir 'erbert! What's a lady to say to that, I ask ye?"
"You had her played exactly right, Miss Cobham," said Archie Kennedy admiringly.
"So I told Mr. Hornblower, here, didn't I, Horatio?" Kitty shot Hornblower a look that invited him to remember how her clever impersonation had saved them from possible hanging during their captivity in Spain.
Horatio had remembered the presence of his commanding officer with mounting horror and missed this exchange entirely. He grasped Kitty's hands and towed her further into the shade provided by the palms. "Miss Cobham, Captain Pellew is in attendance here tonight! What if he is presented to the real Duchess of Wharfedale?"
"I fancy that will not be a problem, Horatio. I notices the captain making a hasty retreat to the card room, earlier, and I doubt he'll emerge until supper. As for Her Grace, I had counted six flutes of champagne she had consumed before you gentlemen arrived. With what I'm sure she has imbibed since then, I doubt that she will be with us much longer."
As if to prove Kitty right, a rather theatrical groan came from the group across the room. "OOOH - I feel right woozy, I do," the duchess said in her strident voice. There was a flurry of movement, and next Horatio, who could see over the heads of the crowd, saw an elaborately dressed lady being carried out of the room. "Her grace appears to be unwell," he remarked diplomatically. "Passed out, I'd say," said Kitty, realistically.
"Well, gentlemen," the actress said, linking one of her arms through each of theirs, "That's one problem taken care of. Now, as to the captain, I would wager that he won't be coming out of the card room for some time. There will be plenty of time for me to show you gentlemen how to have fun at a ball. Now, a young naval officer might not be considered a catch by most of the matchmaking mamas in attendance, but I see the Admiral's lady over there, and she always has some young ladies that would not find a handsome young partner at all amiss," Kitty towed her less than enthusiastic escorts along to where Lady Hood held court.
Archie allowed his eyes to travel across the group surrounding her ladyship. He saw several very lovely young ladies, and then his eye was caught by the bright scarlet and brilliant white facings of an army uniform. He jumped slightly under Kitty Cobham's hand when he saw the officer's face. "Whatever is the matter, Mr. Kennedy?" her eyes followed his and saw the object of his interest. "Do you know that officer?"
"We do, indeed, Miss Cobham," it was Horatio who answered her. She could see a mixture of pleasure and pain reflected in his face. "That is Major Lord Edrington, of His Majesty's 15th Foot. We lately served with him on an expedition."
"That Royalist uprising in France?" Kitty smiled at the startled reaction to her statement. "You remember, Mr. Haitch, that I told you I have friends in both high and low places."
"Indeed, ma'am, I do remember. You are correct. The major was with us in France."
Kitty looked at his stricken face with a sympathetic eye. "The expedition did not go well, I am told," she said. Horatio merely shook his head, not trusting his voice to answer.
Archie answered for his friend. "Not at all well, ma'am. With your permission, I'll tell you more about it after we have been introduced to her ladyship." Kitty nodded, and Horatio gave his friend a grateful look. He was not ready to discuss Mariette, even with as sympathetic a friend as the actress had become.
As the group approached Lady Hood's corner, the Earl of Edrington straightened up from where he had been bent, listening to a young lady seated in a chair beside him. He spied the dark blue uniforms and unpowdered hair among the more flamboyant coats and wigs of the men around them, and recognized his recent comrades in arms. "Mr. Hornblower, Mr. Kennedy," he said, with real warmth in his otherwise rather icy blue eyes.
"My lord, may I present Miss Katherine Cobham? Miss Cobham, the Earl of Edrington," Horatio made the introductions after bowing to his lordship. "Charmed, Miss Cobham," said the major, raising her hand for a light kiss on the knuckles. She beamed at him. "A pleasure to meet you, your lordship."
Some time later, Horatio paused on the edge of the dance floor on his way to obtain a cup of punch for his most recent dance partner. He watched as Archie circled his partner, and then his eyes were drawn to Kitty and the major, who were performing the steps of the dance with grace and obvious enjoyment. As Horatio watched, Kitty made a remark which caused Edrington to throw his head back and shout with laughter. Horatio was amazed, for although they had served together under trying circumstances at Muzillac and had come to understand one another quite well, Horatio would not have thought that the major had a sense of humor. Suddenly, he had no more time to muse on his lordship's sense of humor. A hand clapped onto his shoulder and a very familiar voice spoke in his ear.
"Mr. Hornblower. Isn't that Major Edrington dancing with Her Grace?"
The captain! Horatio felt a short spurt of panic, and saw his own emotions mirrored in Archie's eyes as the young midshipman came out of his bow at the end of the dance to see Captain Pellew standing beside Horatio. Hornblower turned to look at the captain and managed to avoid panic by concentrating on what the captain had said. He had asked a question, and had no idea that the woman now approaching on Edrington's arm was, in fact, an impostor.
"Aye, sir. His lordship arrived with Lady Hood's party earlier in the evening," Horatio managed to answer past the lump in his throat.
"Ah, Lady Hood. I must go and pay my respects. Thank you for telling me, Mr. Hornblower. Come, Mr. Bracegirdle." The captain turned and moved toward the admiral's lady. Horatio felt his shoulders slump in relief.
Katherine and the major rejoined Hornblower. "What did the captain say, Horatio?" Katherine asked, anxiously. She correctly interpreted the young man's quick glance at Edrington. "You need not worry about speaking in front of the major, Horatio. I told him all about our adventures in Spain and aboard the Indy."
Edrington's face wore a small smile. "I was never so diverted in all my life, ma'am." He quickly lifted her hand to his lips for a salute.
Kennedy came up to join them just then, and he and Horatio shared a glance filled with meaning. It seemed that the normally reserved Earl of Edrington had fallen quickly and hard for the charming Miss Cobham.
"Captain Pellew asked if that was Major Edrington dancing with 'her grace'," said Horatio, grimly. "He still thinks you are the Duchess of Wharfedale, ma'am."
"Well, there is no reason why I cannot imitate her grace again, gentlemen. We will just have to keep away from Lady Hood's party, since we cannot risk having the captain wanting to present 'the duchess' to Lady Hood, who already knows me quite well as Katherine Cobham." Kitty spared a quick glance at the captain, and saw him still bowed over Lady Hood's hand. "Come this way, my lord, gentlemen." Her arm through Edrington's she led him over near the french doors that were halfway across the vast ballroom from where Lady Hood was seated. She dropped onto a small gilt chair and began to ply her fan, grateful for a small breeze that came through the open doors. "There, now, we're safe enough, except from the glares of the mamas who are furious that I am monopolizing three of the best looking young men in the room," observed Kitty. She raised her eyebrows, and her arch look clearly invited the young men concerned to return the compliment. Edrington was opening his mouth to comply, but the almost painfully modest Horatio Hornblower blurted out, "Oh, but, ma'am, we are in uniform, our hair unpowdered, while some of the gentlemen are in silks, and their jewels..."
"Horatio," Archie clapped a quick hand on his taller friend's shoulder, and regretted that he could not easily reach his mouth to shut him up!
"Mr. Hornblower," the major drawled, "here is an excellent opportunity to practice that diplomacy we spoke of in France." Horatio caught the major's amused glance at Kitty and abruptly shut his mouth, reddening. Edrington turned back to Miss Cobham. "Madame, I am sure that those looks are merely envy for your own loveliness and charm, which they can no longer hope to surpass." He gave Horatio a pointed look before bending over Kitty's hand with a respectful salute.
Horatio hurried forward to grasp her hand as the major released it. "Of course, Miss Cobham. Why, none of those ladies could hope to match your beauty, your style, your...your grace," Hornblower stammered to a stop as a roar of laughter met his unintentional pun. He had to smile, himself, at the nervous state he was in.
Kitty, who was facing the room, stiffened slightly in her dainty chair. The flicker of awareness was there, then gone so swiftly that Horatio doubted he would have noticed were he not holding her hand. Kitty's laugh seemed to grow more shrill, then she furled her fan and used it to strike Horatio lightly on one blue-clad arm. "Laws, Mr. Haitch," she said, the Yorkshire accent strong, "you are a caution, you are. Sir Edward, what can I do with this young gentleman?"
Horatio turned as she spoke over his shoulder and caught sight of Captain Pellew crossing the room, cutting through the dancers who were just leaving the floor as though he were the Indy with all sails set.
Horatio retreated to stand beside Archie Kennedy as the captain reached Miss Cobham's side and grasped her outstretched hand. "Good evening, your grace. I've often asked myself the same question about Mr. Hornblower," Pellew said, fixing the young officer with a steely glance. "Why did you not tell me that her grace was in attendance, sir?"
Horatio blushed and opened his mouth to defend himself, but Kitty quickly intervened. "I'm afraid you must blame me, Sir Edward. I've kept Mr. 'ornblower so busy fetching me punch and such, he's not 'ad time to report."
"Hmmm... very well, your grace. I see you've met Lord Edrington. How do you do, my lord?"
The major bowed, politely. "Good evening, Captain."
After returning the bow, Pellew turned again to the lady. "Your Grace, please allow me to present Lady Hood to you. I am sure that the Admiral told her of your bravery in carrying the dispatches home from Spain, and..."
Horatio froze in horror as he heard the dreaded invitation for the faux duchess to meet Lady Hood, but Kitty had obviously been ready for just such an eventuality. "I'm afraid, Sir Edward, that 'er ladyship and I are already acquainted," she said, plying her fan briskly to cool heated cheeks. She crooked her finger at the captain, commanding him to move closer. She continued in a hoarse whisper. "Confidentially, Sir Edward, I try to steer a course 'round 'er ladyship whenever I can. She's taken an active dislike to me, and all because of what was only a bit of 'armless flirtation between me and 'is lordship. You see, I.....," Kitty was amused to see a look of wild panic come into Pellew's eyes. She had known, of course, that the captain would definitely not want to hear any details of flirtations between his superior officer and the barely respectable Duchess, especially if it also involved a scene with the Admiral's wife.
Major Edrington had been watching Kitty's performance with an amused eye, and now cleared his throat, ready to rescue poor Captain Pellew. "Excuse me, sir, but I was about to remind her grace that the supper dance is commencing, and to beg her to allow me the honor of being her partner."
The captain grasped this lifeline immediately. "Yes, of course, my lord. Please do not let me keep you from the dancing, your grace." He stood up straight and backed off as quickly as if he'd been stung.
Kitty hid her amusement behind her fan, and grasped Edrington's helping hand. "'is lordship 'as been so kind, Sir Edward. And Mr. 'ornblower and Mr. Kennedy, of course," she added, as the captain's sharp eye landed on his two junior officers. She didn't want to be the cause of her two young friends being called before the captain for ungentlemanlike behavior.
"Ur... yes, well, I'm glad to hear it, ma'am," the captain said after clearing his throat. He obviously wished to be elsewhere. He eye cast about the room until he saw an excuse to remove himself from the group, which he grasped with both hands, so to speak. "I see the Admiral has finally arrived. I must report. No, gentlemen," he said firmly, as Horatio and Archie stepped forward, "Mr. Bracegirdle is still with her ladyship, so he may accompany me. You may remain here in case you are needed to perform any errands for her grace." The captain then bowed to the major and Miss Cobham before retreating to where Lord Hood had joined his wife and her party.
"I don't believe I've ever seen such a neat retreat," the major remarked, dryly. "You seem to be much more formidable in the good captain's eyes than a Frog ship of the line, ma'am."
"Indeed, ma'am. My congratulations on neatly routing the captain," Kennedy said.
"And you, my lord," Horatio added. "I think that the combination of the Duchess and the Lobster brought our poor captain to his knees." As the two men shook hands, they maintained straight faces for a moment, but then a giggle from Kitty Cobham grew into hearty laughter, which set Archie off, and the humor finally transferred to Hornblower and the major, so that the whole group was laughing as they made their way in to supper.