Georgana’s Secret – Arlem Hawks

Footsteps, firm and steady, sounded on the stairs. Each one tore at Georgana Woodall’s young heart as she waited in the hall outside the nursery because they brought Papa’s goodbye closer and closer. She brushed her tears away quickly, in case Grandmother was following Papa. Grandmother had no tolerance for tears—from girls of seven or their mothers. Papa’s handsome face appeared above the steps, then his blue uniform with the gold trim, then his smart black boots. He stopped at the top of the stairs. She held his gaze for a moment, then dropped her eyes back to their comfortable spot on the floor. Her father went down on one knee. She didn’t look at him until he cupped her chin in his hand. “What are these tears, George?” Against her will, the corner of Georgana’s mouth ticked upward. “Grandmother does not like it when you call me that.” “Then it shall be our secret.” He put a finger to his lips, which forced a full grin from her. Papa rarely went against his mother’s commands, and then only by order of the Admiralty. “Mama doesn’t like it, either.

” Georgana didn’t especially like it herself, but she wouldn’t tell him that. His face softened. “Well, if Mama wishes me not to call you George, I will try to remember.” His hand fell to his side, and he rose to his feet. Georgana’s throat tightened. It was time for goodbye. “Come, Georgana,” he said. She waited for him to tell her to be brave. Sometimes he added that to his practiced farewell. Instead, he caught her up and lifted her to his shoulder.

Georgana let out a squeal, then a giggle through her tears. “We have time for one last sail before I leave.” His eyes twinkled, the way they sometimes did when Grandmother wasn’t around. He glanced about to be sure they were alone, then walked quickly to the servants’ stairs. She held on tight, one hand on his epaulet and the other around his head. They emerged from the servants’ quarters into a sun-bathed and silent garden. “Ready, Captain?” he asked. Georgana extended her arms out to the sides like yardarms on a mast. Papa stalked forward, slowly rocking back and forth to imitate a ship. She drew in a breath still shaky from her tears.

There wasn’t much wind, but she imagined a stiff breeze off the ocean pulling at her dark curls and billowing her dress like a sail. Someday Papa would take her to sea. Until then, she had to pretend. A white lace cap appeared above the bushes, cutting a swift path toward them through the rose garden. Georgana’s heart leaped into her throat. “Storm off the larboard bow.” Her voice came out in a squeak. Papa halted when he saw Grandmother’s cap. “Hard to starboard,” he said softly. They were escaping? “Hard to starboard,” Georgana echoed.

Papa wheeled around and dashed for the edge of the house. She bounced against his shoulder, turning her head to see if Grandmother had spotted them. The old woman’s drab gray dress came into view just as Papa rounded the corner. “Alfred? Georgana?” The shrill sound grated on Georgana’s nerves. Papa didn’t stop but slowed his pace as they reached the kitchen garden. He started to sway again, exaggerating the motion. “Captain, the wind is too much!” Georgana giggled as she was tossed from side to side. “Hold steady!” “I can’t. The gale’s caught us!” He tilted harder, his actions more and more wild until Georgana slipped from his shoulder and into his arms. Her laughter shook loose the tightness in her stomach that had grown in anticipation of the looming goodbye.

Cradling her to his chest, he sat on a nearby bench. “You have a wonderful laugh. Like sunshine on a winter day.” She liked his laugh, too. She liked the way it made Mama smile. Her smile didn’t come out very often when Papa was gone. Grandmother chased it away. “Don’t ever lose that laugh, little one.” Georgana pressed her face into his waistcoat so the words wouldn’t come spewing out. She did lose her laugh.

Like Mama’s smile, her laugh stayed locked away when they were left to Grandmother’s charge. Mama said Georgana should never tell Papa about what happened when he was at sea. Mama didn’t want him to worry. Papa kissed her forehead, his eyes wet. “I love you, George. Someday I will not have to go.” Someday. It seemed an impossible promise. He squeezed her tightly and rocked her, gentle as a ship in a quiet harbor. He chewed the corner of his lip.

Georgana followed suit until she drew a sad smile to his face with her imitation. She closed her eyes. For a moment, she forgot his departure, forgot Lushill House, forgot the cruel words waiting on Grandmother’s tongue. She focused on the feel of Papa’s strong, safe arms around her. All too soon, she was standing on the front steps, holding Mama’s trembling hand, as Papa grasped the carriage door. He paused, then looked back. He tipped his bicorn hat, and Mama choked down a sob. Then Papa vanished into the coach, and the horses lurched forward, dragging the carriage and Georgana’s father toward Portsmouth and the ocean. She gritted her teeth against her tears. Perhaps if Grandmother saw her efforts to remain composed, she wouldn’t shout.

The carriage hadn’t cleared the yard before it began. “Inside.” There was no kindness in Grandmother’s tone. “Back to your studies, Georgana. I will not have the stupidest girl in England for a granddaughter.” Her hard eyes flitted to Mama. “Compose yourself, Susan. Ridiculous outbursts have no place in this house.” Someday . A flash of gray sleeve preceded Grandmother’s slap.

Georgana stumbled back. Mama’s grip on her hand kept her from falling. The stinging flesh of her cheek brought new tears to her eyes. “Please,” Mama whimpered, “let her alone. She is only—” “I said to go inside!” Grandmother shrieked. Georgana looked back to the road as Mama pulled her obediently into the manor. She shuddered as she tried not to cry. If only her father had seen. Maybe they wouldn’t have to live like this. But Papa’s carriage had turned a corner and was lost in the trees.

And all happiness with it. Chapter 1 Eleven years later Portsmouth, England July 1810 Lieutenant Dominic Peyton tried to feel sorrow over his departure, but his efforts were in vain. The ocean’s siren song called him to the window of his study, where he strained for a glimpse of the waters he knew he couldn’t see from this distance, though he thought he could pick out the tips of HMS Deborah’s masts above the rooftops. Not long now, he told his impatient soul. The anticipation of boarding a ship again stirred up an excitement he’d striven to quell the last few weeks, in order to not pain Mother. He regretted leaving his mother, of course. She had no one else but him. Only his concern for her kept him returning to land. Dominic tucked his bicorn under his arm and took one last look around the study with its neglected books and rows of seashells, rocks, and driftwood lining the shelves. One token for each time his ship had docked since his second year in the navy.

Fourteen years of this silly tradition, but his mother still loved it, placing each gift with care. He strode down the hall to find his mother in the drawing room, mending one of his stockings. She stared over the rim of her spectacles, holding the stocking so close it nearly touched her nose. With hair still more brown than gray, she seemed too young to have difficulties with her sight. An ache sliced through his heart as he watched her work. Misfortune was her lot, though she hardly deserved it. After a few more stitches, she cut the string and sat back. “Ah, my boy. Are you ready?” He nodded. The servant had already taken his trunk to the hired coach.

“And here I am dawdling.” She folded the stocking neatly and stood. “I thought I had finished these, but I found one hiding in my basket.” Dominic took it from her and shoved it in his pocket, wishing he could force down his restlessness as easily. “Thank you.” She reached up to touch his cheek. “Anything for you, Son.” Mother didn’t cry anymore when he left. She’d always been brave—braver than he was, to be certain. What any captain wouldn’t give for a ship full of men with a will as strong as his mother’s.

It would make for the most formidable crew in His Majesty’s navy. Her arms encircled him, and she rested her head against his shoulder. “Do you know why I named you Dominic?” He grinned. When he was small, she had often sneaked into his room after the nurse put her boys to bed. She would whisper songs and stories as she rubbed his back, and she always ended with that question. Now she asked it whenever he left. “No, Mother.” That was his usual answer. And then she would tell him stories about the Irish grandfather she’d named him for. She frowned at him, then fussed with his brown hair.

He should have had the barber cut it shorter. It would be unmanageable before long. “Your father made me a bargain.” Dominic blinked. He hadn’t heard this version of the tale before. “If I didn’t complain about the name he gave his heir, I could name the next child. And then he named your older brother John, so he could fit in with all the other little English heirs of the same name.” She huffed dramatically, and Dominic laughed. She stepped away to survey her work with his hair. “I so wanted you to be a girl.

” “You’ve kept that back for twenty-six years, and now you see fit to tell me?” His mother swatted his arm. “Once they put you in my arms, I wished for nothing else but you. I wouldn’t trade you for a dozen girls.” “Would you trade John, then?” She shook her head in exasperation, and the sparkle left her eyes. She loved John, shameless dastard that he was. “You mustn’t tease, Dominic. Surely you are above that.” He ducked his head, trying to rid himself of the simmering in his gut at the thought of his brother. It was the same sensation that rose at any mention of his father. Years had dimmed his indignation but hadn’t removed it.

She smoothed his sleeve. “I named you Dominic because I saw the strength of your grandfather in you, even as a tiny infant. I knew you would distinguish yourself just as he had.” Dominic couldn’t resist. “And you knew Father would hate an Irish name.” Her eyebrows raised, but she kept her mouth shut. So loyal, though the man hardly deserved it. The clock on the mantel struck nine. His orders were to report to the Deborah at ten. “You’d best be on your way,” his mother said before he could.

“Is there nothing I can do for you?” She clasped her hands before her. “Not now, but soon.” He touched her arm. “What is it?” His mother never asked for anything. She looped her arm through his and marched him from the drawing room. The hallway barely fit the two of them walking side by side. “Someday we will have time to go to London for the Season.” London? What on earth would she want to do in Town? And during the Season, when the city was overcrowded with people? “I thought you hated London.” He stopped before the door. The lone footman of the house pulled it open, then flattened himself against the wall to allow them to pass by.

“We must go somewhere to find you a wife, since none of the Portsmouth girls have caught your eye.” A wife? Dominic’s stomach lurched like a landsman’s the first week at sea. Marriage was the least of his worries. And with the war’s end nowhere in sight, and tension rising in the Americas, he didn’t anticipate a rest from service soon. Unless, of course . “When do you think they will promote you to captain?” his mother asked as they exited the house. “I thought for certain you would have earned it after your last voyage.” An unexpected, intense pang pulsed through Dominic’s core. These last few weeks he had tried to forget all about the promotion. “It should come soon, I think.

” He pasted on a smile. “All in good time.” “After the promotion, perhaps we can go to London as you wait for your command. A post-captain would be quite the conquest in the marriage mart.” He kissed her cheek. “Goodbye, Mother. I’ll send word of when you can expect me as soon as I know our orders.” The crew received orders only after they boarded, a naval practice his mother despised. “Be careful, Son.” Dominic hurried into the coach and set his hat on the seat beside him.

He let his head fall back, wondering if his face was burning like the secret he kept. Before the door closed, Mother poked her head in. Dominic straightened, hoping she hadn’t seen his relief. “What is it?” “I nearly forgot. There is something you can do for me. I wish you to make inquiries while on board.” Interest piqued, he leaned closer. Thank heavens she hadn’t renewed talk of promotion and Town. “What sort of inquiries?” “I knew Captain Woodall’s wife when she was a girl,” his mother said, lowering her voice. “Her family lived very near mine before I married.

She died a few years ago, leaving behind a daughter. I have thought of that little girl often, but none of my London acquaintances have heard of her in quite some time. They say she vanished soon after her mother’s death, and no one has seen her since, though she should be in Society by now.” How odd. Families usually pushed their daughters into Society’s brazen lights, not hid them. “Did the captain send her to a school?” That was a reasonable explanation. “Or to kin, perhaps?” His mother shook her head. “Her only relation is the captain’s mother, who still lives at his house near London.” Dominic’s eyes narrowed. Very strange, indeed.

“I thought, while under his command, you might ask about the girl.” She wrung her hands. “Not in a forward manner, of course. I wouldn’t want to jeopardize your relationship with the captain. But surely someone on that ship knows something.” He covered her hands with his. “I will ask, and I will write as soon as I can.” Would she consider inviting the Woodall girl to stay? It would be nice for his mother to have a companion while he was away, and he didn’t think it would take much convincing, seeing as the girl had little family to speak of. As the carriage pulled away, he pressed his forehead against the window, watching as his mother vigorously waved a handkerchief from the steps of her little house. His little house, legally, but he never thought of it that way.

She had originally let the house on her meager annuity from his father’s will, and Dominic had bought it a few years ago with prize money accrued from conquests at sea. He wished he could give her more than a few bedrooms and a cramped living area, but even saving so much of his earnings, he couldn’t afford better. That was why, when the promotion had come, he’d turned it down. Dominic kneaded his temples, trying to push down his lingering doubts about his refusal. He had made the right decision. A working lieutenant’s salary was better than the half pay a post-captain received while waiting for a ship. And with so many new captains hoping for a command, he did not know when he’d be back at sea. Better to stay a lieutenant and keep his mother in that tiny home than deplete his funds. Dominic breathed deeply, anxious to leave behind the stale air of the carriage in favor of the sharp brine of an ocean breeze. Just the thought stirred his heart, but his joy was doused by that ever-present tinge of regret.

He insisted to himself that he had turned down the promotion for his mother, which was true. Yet a small part of him whispered that wasn’t the whole truth. Dominic scooted to the opposite side of the coach to look out the other window. The docks grew closer, and beyond them, the vast ocean. Tiny specks of birds circled the stately masts that rose above the city. He could almost hear the gulls calling as they wove through the maze of ropes. Bound-up sails clung to the yards, begging for the captain’s cry to unfurl so they could catch the wind. This was why he could never marry. His heart belonged to the sea. He both feared and hoped it always would.

Waiting for a position as captain would keep him aground for months. Better to serve another man and keep the freedom of the sea than be his own master in the prison they called land.

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