Pride of Valor – Andrea K. Stein

Royal Marine Sergeant Richard Bourne kept his men in a steady rhythm of firing congreve rockets from their bomb ship, appropriately named HMS Beelzebub, and hoped to hell he’d retain some semblance of hearing when this day was over. Thank God the display from the bombs was spectacular and terrifying, and the targets large, because they were wildly inaccurate. Captain Will Thorne had plucked him from the ranks and put him in charge for the day over one of his floating bombs on the water. Their mission was simple. Bomb the hell out of the ramparts of the Dey of Algiers’ harbor-front defenses until he capitulated to Lord Admiral Exmouth’s demands: Free all the Christian slaves and desist from taking English and Dutch captives off ships from that day forward. The night before, the mission had seemed simple, but now he was not so sure. He’d never envisioned his first command would be in a flimsy excuse for a small, rocking ship with room enough only for the wildly erratic rockets and the men who had to fire them. Saints Preserve Ireland. 1 1 820 Falmouth, England 50.1526° N, 5.0663° W Lieutenant Richard Bourne of His Majesty’s Royal Marines was bone tired of trying to convince lately retired fellow sailors to take up the watery drum and come back to the Royal Navy. He shoved his booted feet out straight beneath the tavern table and took a deep draught of his beer. He hadn’t met the quota Captain Bellingham had hoped for that day, and this last stop at the Green Dolphin had not been promising. The boastful broadsides he’d had printed and posted at every public place in Falmouth proclaimed: All Dashing High-spirited YOUNG HEROES Who wish to obtain GLORY in the SERVICE of their Country, have now the finest opportunity by entering that enterprizing respectable Corps – THE ROYAL MARINES, etc., etc.

The final appeal, all in large, bold letters was PRIZE MONEY. What he really wanted were veterans of Royal Navy service who’d been paid off when their ships were retired after the French wars. Despite the rosy picture the broadside painted, Richard well knew the sad truth. Everyone was tired of fighting. If you’d survived the many skirmishes at sea and made it home safely, and hopefully in one piece, you were not keen to head back out to the hellish waters off Africa. Especially when the pay was not that great, and the lure of prize ships getting scarcer every year. However, a glimmer of hope lay in the tendency of sailors to spend their payouts faster than their wives would like. And then there was the curse of the Navy wife – a man underfoot who had been out of house for years during the wars. He’d seen that dynamic play out between his own mother and father back in County Meath. A smile quirked up at the edges of his mouth at the memory of the many battles he’d observed between Major Liam and Margaret Bourne.

Soon followed by longer making-up times. Making-up times which had sent him and his siblings into paroxysms of groans and shared looks of disbelief. Their father had frequently made a complete cake of himself struggling to woo their mother all over again to earn her forgiveness. And then, the elder Bourne would return to his regiment, soon to be followed by Mrs. Bourne welcoming another bairn into the extensive Bourne household brood. His next sip of the Falmouth tavern’s fine beer was interrupted by an altercation near the bar so fierce and raucous that he nearly choked. He turned in his chair and then leapt to his feet. A group of drunken men were throwing rotten apples at a woman surely at least in her sixties. She had an ethereal kind of beauty that would not fade with age, unusually clear skin with a rosy cast to her cheeks, and…she was dressed in full costumed regalia as a witch. The elderly lady’s hair flowed down her back, long and silver, shot with occasional threads of russet.

Her voice, low and lilting, but of such a timbre that it carried throughout the establishment, was reciting, if memory served him, one of the witches’ scenes from Macbeth. HARRİET, Dowager Countess of Blandford, tried to keep her legendary temper in check and her voice low and conciliatory. She struggled to mollify the current footman whose sole job was to oversee her son and his guard mastiffs, Max and Fleur. However, he did have a point. The mud and dirt the three miscreants tracked into her late grandfather’s lodge outside Falmouth were a staggering challenge to the strongest of servants. The immense buckets of slobber the two animals seemed to generate daily were enough to nettle any reasonable man. “John Thomas…” Her footman was the third generation of John Thomas’es to serve in her family’s household. She remembered from her childhood, and appreciated, the “cando” attitude his father had always brought to any difficult task, not to mention the fact that he’d probably saved her life in the aftermath of her husband’s death at Waterloo. “Young Lord Nicholas means well, but I’m…” He paused as if gathering his courage. “I’m afraid he encourages those two bullies overmuch in their pranks.

” “Please,” Harriet began. “Please understand my complete sympathy for your situation, but I assure you, those two creatures have kept my son out of danger, twice now. They have to stay.” She stared for a moment into the young man’s soft brown eyes. “I’ve heard from Mrs. Lanigan you’re due some congratulations. You were married this Sunday past.” He blushed furiously and averted his gaze. “Setting up a household can be a challenge. Please accept this gift from our family along with our best wishes for a happy life.

” She pulled a small bag of coins from a drawer in her grandfather’s old desk and handed it to the young man. After another telling blush, he accepted the gift and hung his head. “You are too generous, milady. I’m sorry I brought my petty complaints to you today.” She took a longer look at his face and noted some smudges beneath his eyes. His young wife was perhaps keeping her new husband awake overly long at night. It was difficult stifling a smile, but she managed, remembering the early days of her own marriage. “Why don’t you take a half day for the rest of the day? Perhaps you could use some time to rest before facing Nicholas and his two cohorts again tomorrow. We’ll find someone else to oversee them today.” “Thank you, milady.

Perhaps I am a bit tired. Is there anything else you require?” She waved a hand in dismissal. “Please, go home. Enjoy the day.” He bowed low and then sprinted from the study. She realized, as she heard his rapid footsteps retreating down the hall, he would probably spend the rest of the day in his new wife’s arms. Hopefully, he would manage some sleep before reporting back in the morning. She shook her head and rang the kitchen bell to signal she was ready for tea. At that precise moment, the thunder of paws and her son’s excited voice echoing down the hall signaled her “tea” would not be the restful affair she’d hoped for. “M-mama, Mama!” The eight-year-old was covered in mud and trailed by two monstrous mastiffs shaking their huge heads from side to side, spattering furniture, carpets, and walls with their endless supplies of drool.

One look at the wet, caked detritus covering their paws made her re-think her generous offer to let Thomas spend the rest of the day at home. Any urge to reprimand her son for trailing chaos into her sunny drawing room was tempered by the knowledge that he was all she had left of the only passion she’d ever known. The passion she’d left in a grave outside Waterloo in Belgium five years before. “Slow down, my love. See the words in your mind before you try to say them.” “N-nana…” “Yes, Nana? What has she done now?” “She…she’s gone to town. D-dressed in her w-witch costume.” Harriet leapt to her feet. “No. We have to stop her.

Where is she now?” He hung his head. “By the time I gave up trying to get her to come h-home, we were h-half-way there.” She pulled him close and squeezed his thin shoulders. He’d lately taken a growth spurt which seemed to send every bit of the substance of his body into the upward shooting of his limbs toward the height of the man his father had been. At just six, his head nearly reached her chin. “It’s not your fault. She’s not your responsibility.” She stooped to the level of his clear blue gaze. He was so much his father, with just a dusting of freckles across his nose the only inkling he was her son as well. “Did she say where she was going?” “She said what she always said.

She was on her way to Covent Garden to practice her lines with the rest of the troupe.” “And she was dressed as a witch?” “Yes, Mama. ‘Macbeth.’ You know.” Unfortunately, Harriet did indeed know. Her grandmother had spent most of her adult years as Her Grace, the serene, beautiful Duchess of Sidmouth. She’d behaved with the utmost decorum after having been plucked from the London stage by the late duke. True, the scandal at first had spread like wildfire through the upper levels of the ton until a strange thing had occurred. A group of older women who dominated aristocratic society slowed the gossip to a trickle and then a virtual standstill. They included the ducal couple in the most sought-after invitations of the Season that year, and their loyalty paid off.

Everyone who was anyone had to see the notorious, blazingly beautiful former actress who had emerged from the cocoon of the London stage into a sedate and proper duchess. After that, Their Graces retired to the vast Devon estate on which the title was based, and proceeded to raise a brood of normal, unexceptional heirs. The notable exception, of course, was Harriet’s mother, Ariel. After Nana’s sixty-seventh birthday, her mental faculties had gradually regressed. Now, she spent her days preparing for a mythical return to the theatre of her youth. She was convinced there would be an urgent call from Covent Garden, begging her to return to her most famous roles, like the First Witch in Macbeth. Harriet had heard her grandmother recite the fourth act so many times, she could probably play it herself. LİEUTENANT BOURNE STRODE toward the side of the crowded tavern bar where a large group of men were shouting obscenities at a frail, elderly thespian, dressed in flowing black robes with a high, conical black hat trailing a black veil. She wielded a sturdy staff with which she made the motions of stirring the imaginary contents of an invisible cauldron. He was caught off guard when a sudden move by one of the menacing patrons to snatch at her dress was met by a violent drubbing with the wooden staff.

Richard straightened and took a closer look at the woman. She was not as frail as she seemed. Her retaliation provoked more men sitting at scattered tables to join the noisy crowd at the bar. Richard rose to his full height and buttoned his scarlet uniform jacket. Time to end the nonsense before she was injured. “All of you. Either respect the lady and her performance, or return to your seats.” The crowd turned to him as one and then went back to heckling the elderly lady. Richard put his fingers to his mouth and emitted a high, loud screech of a whistle. “I’m not joking.

Return to your seats, or I’ll haul the lot of you before the magistrate.” A number of them gave him a dismissive wave. The rest remained either riveted to listening to the performance, or intent on tossing spoiled food at the beleaguered actress. Saints preserve Ireland, he muttered under his breath. “Sergeant Dawson,” he barked out. “Stop those men.” And then the two of them waded into the agitated throng. Richard reached the woman’s side first and leaned close to ask where her carriage might be. “Oh, I walked here,” she admitted airily and pointed her hand gracefully in the direction of the front entrance. “I don’t doubt your word, milady, but I’m sure your coachman must be waiting nearby.

Shall I take you there?” When she suddenly shone her full attention on him, he was stunned. Although this woman had to be somewhere in her sixties, her face was as flawless as fine porcelain, and her deep green eyes were like shimmering emerald pools. Those eyes peered down her patrician nose taking in every bit of him. He felt a warmth spread through his limbs, and to his complete chagrin, a hot flush ignited from his neck to the top of his head. This ageless nymph of a woman fancied him. As instant awareness shot through him, she placed a hand on his arm and leaned close to whisper in his ear. “You can take me anywhere you like, young man.” HARRİET STARED out into the late fall landscape while she warmed her feet on wrapped hot bricks on the floor of the family carriage. God, what a bitter October night for Nana to have picked to go a wandering in search of a theatre. Each time the elderly woman’s slipping mind put her back in the days of her earlier acting triumphs, Harriet alone had been left to hunt her down, make apologies all around, including to the magistrate who had been involved on more than one occasion in settling the near riots she’d caused at various taverns in and around Falmouth.

On one humiliating occasion, Harriet had been obliged to convince an elderly crofter that the duchess had not agreed to warm his bed. This was not London. Which was good and bad. Most of the good people of Falmouth had some sort of connection with their family, since the Dukes of Sidmouth had owned lands bordering the town for centuries. The forests were part of a hunting preserve surrounding the lodge to which Harriet had fled with her endangered son and her demented grandmother. The goodwill of the people of the countryside had been sorely strained with Nana’s continuing escapades. The last time she’d been brought before Squire John Bosman, the elderly woman had actually tried to ply her sensuality on him. That had been the final act beyond which the poor man could not continue to make allowances, former duchess or not. The coachman no longer needed instructions from Harriet. He knew by rote the taverns they would have to visit before the inevitable, shameful dragging away of her Nana.

In the distance, the glow of Falmouth’s street lanterns signaled they were nearing the humiliating commencement of parading their carriage with the family crest from one tavern to another. Harriet gave a deep sigh and pulled her heavy woolen cloak more tightly around her shoulders. Two hours later, Harriet’s hopes sank. Nana was nowhere to be seen, in or around her usual haunts. An ocean-cold twinge of doubt and fear lapped at the middle of her back and flowed down to her nearly frozen toes in her thin slippers. What had her confused grandmother done this time? Was she ill, injured? Had she wandered off into the night with God knows who? A particularly wicked wind blew off the harbor, making Harriet fear what might happen if her frail grandmother had decided to wander the treacherous paths stretching for miles beyond the Cornwall port. The only remaining tavern, the Green Dolphin, sat at the far edge of Falmouth, along the harbor front. It was a seedy, unkempt establishment where Nana had never ventured before. And, frankly, Harriet had no desire to set foot there, either. She sent the coachman in to see if anyone had sighted an old woman in witch regalia and took the flannel wrapping off the previously hot brick and curled her feet around the fading warmth.

After five or ten minutes when the man hadn’t returned, Harriet wrenched open the coach door herself and dropped to the ground. She headed purposefully toward the soft glow of lanterns to either side of the tavern’s sturdy wooden door. Hopefully, the warmth of a fireside inside the inn would prevent her from freezing to death. She nodded to the footman tending the horses and promised to bring him back a hot drink. She knew it was a bad idea to enter such an establishment on her own, but she figured her family already had a reputation for eccentricity. Her late husband’s family was trying to destroy her. What did she have to lose? The first thing to assail her ears after the smell of onions, garlic, and rancid ale nearly pushed her back outside, was the sound of an argument near the rear of the tavern. Her coachman was apparently in the midst of loud debate with the innkeeper. “She nearly got the place shut down. She attacked two Royal Marines, didn’t she?” The woman paused long enough to transfer a small boy from one broad hip to the other.

“They took her away to give her what for.” “Where?” Harriet interrupted the woman’s indignant speech. She moved as close as she dared, and when the babe cried at the angry look on her face, she softened and took him in her arms to jiggle and chuck him under his chin. The other woman softened a bit also. “He’s cuttin’ a wee tooth. None of us be gettin’ much sleep at night.” “Did the Marines say where they were taking my grandmother?” The other woman’s jaw fell open. “She be the old duchess?” “She…she hasn’t been herself for quite some time. She seems to think she’s still an actress in London.” Harriet felt the need to confide in the other woman, as one mother to another, even though she regretted the words as soon as they left her mouth.

But she still remembered the fierce times Nicholas had given her when he was struggling with new teeth and felt a sort of kinship with the woman. “Maybe my Robbie remembers. He helped them drag her out of here to a hired carriage.” Harriet sucked in a deep breath. Now she’d done it. All of the time she and her cousin, the duke, had worried about their grandmother, they knew how headstrong she could be…and dangerous. They’d both feared such a day might come. Hera’s teeth, the Dowager Duchess of Sidmouth could at that moment be chained up in a Naval brig aboard one of the many ships at anchor in the harbor. Because whenever her grandmother escaped into her fantasy world, she never revealed her true identity. Many of Falmouth’s tavern keepers now knew her by sight and watched out for her, but she’d never ventured to this particular inn before.

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