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The Captain's Quest

By Lorri Dudley

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England, November 18, 1814
Chapter One
Why did I agree to this? Priscilla Leah Middleton pressed her loo mask tighter against her face. Other dancer’s skirts swirled around her like colorful pinwheels. The music roused the boisterous energy of men and women emboldened by the anonymity gained from their striking costumes. Greek gods, bright bird plumage, historical heroes, and her own Little Bo-Peep costume did nothing to diminish the unease pricking her conscience.
Was she that desperate for a close friendship? Enough to relent to Nellie’s whimsical woes of heartache? They’d become acquainted a few months ago, but recently, Nellie seemed determined to entangle them in a scandal.
The violinist concerto finished its movement, and dancers changed direction. Distracted, Priscilla would have continued straight, but her dance partner's robust frame saved her from embarrassing herself. She flashed her gratitude.
Her stately partner returned her smile, but even behind his mask, she could tell it didn’t reach his eyes.
The rapping on her conscience intensified, bottling pressure. “It is quite a party, is it not?” she blurted, though conversing while dancing would be difficult.
“Quite.” His gaze floated above her, scanning the room.
A floodgate of nervous prattle opened. “Does Lady Lemoore always entertain such interesting groups of people? I recognize politicians mixing with opera singers, military officers speaking to notorious rakes and gamblers. This is quite—”
“Indeed.” A coldness shone in his gaze.
Her breath hitched. Had he taken offense? Perhaps he fits into the latter category. “I love a good party, dancing, meeting interesting people, matchmaking among friends. It’s thrilling. Don’t you agree?”
As though unaware she’d spoken, his attention drifted to the far corner.
At least she’d learned something about this man Nellie had insisted Priscilla partner with for a dance—he wasn’t a conservationist. Priscilla willed the orchestra to conclude.
She scanned the dancers for Lord Fortin, still hearing Nellie’s pleading in her head, “Please, you must attend the masquerade with me. Lord Fortin must hear what’s on my heart from my own lips. I must look into his eyes and see for myself if he returns my sentiment.”
Priscilla should have inquired further before agreeing to attend the ball. Had her need to replace the friendship she’d lost when Lottie moved to the Leeward Islands blinded her to Nellie’s selfish immaturity?
Nellie had begged her. “Please do not cut off our chance at love. The masquerade shall be a splendid time. Everyone of notice shall be in attendance.”
Nellie had neglected to mention that by everyone she meant those affiliated with the Tory party.
The coattails of the outspoken political party leader dancing next to her brushed the back of her skirt as he swept past. His sloped gait and high-pitched voice made him easily identifiable despite his knight costume.
Would he recognize her? Why had she been so foolish? She could hear her brother’s scoff in the back of her mind. You’re either daft or half-crazed, and I think I know the answer.
After this dance, she should have the coach brought around before anyone recognized her underneath the mask. Otherwise, The Morning Star's headlines might read: Daughters of Two Prominent Whig Party Affiliates Seen Dancing Among Tories.
A loud cheer erupted from the card room, and Priscilla jumped. A gentleman threw down his hand of cards as Lord Barret, who’d always voted opposite Priscilla’s father, scooped up his earnings. Lady Lemoore whispered in his ear and leaned in a way that offered a provocative view of her low bodice.
Priscilla turned her head to hide her face. Silly, you’re wearing a mask. Lord Barret would hardly recognize her without a costume, certainly not while she wore one. However, she couldn’t be so sure about other familiar faces. If she identified them, then surely, they could do the same for her. “It’s time for me to leave.”
“Leave?” Her dance partner reared back.
Oh, dear. Had she said that out loud?
“Relax, the night is still young.” A lazy half-grin spread the lips of her dance partner, revealing white, even teeth.
Now at least she had his attention. Blast, what was his name? Guy, Gould? No, Goulart. How could she relax when their host, Lady Lemoore, an esteemed woman of the Quality, chose tonight to become politically outspoken.
Mr. Goulart swept her across the floor. “How does a lovely woman like yourself sneak away unchaperoned?”
She stiffened. “How did you know we’re unchaperoned?”
“Miss Archard mentioned it to Lord Fortin.”
Drat. Why would Nellie reveal such a thing unless she wished to encourage a clandestine interlude? Priscilla caught sight of Nellie, basking in the adoration of the well-dressed Lord Fortin, who was guiding her across the crowded dance floor. By Nellie’s dreamy expression, he had once again wooed her with his fanciful flummery.
Could Nellie not see the man was a rogue? They needed to flee from this looming disaster sooner rather than later. Would this dance never end? “Our chaperone was merely delayed.” It wasn’t a lie. Her duenna had fallen ill with a severe headache, and Nellie’s chaperone had nodded off during the carriage ride over. Nellie convinced Priscilla to let her sleep. How convenient for Nellie. She lifted her chin. “She shall be arriving shortly.”
An intoxicated couple nearly collided with Priscilla. Mr. Goulart adeptly reworked steps to avoid disaster. She had to give her partner credit. He danced superbly.
“How did you and Miss Archard become acquainted?” His gaze landed everywhere but upon her.
“We met at a political soiree. Our fathers are closely connected.”
“Really?” His attention snapped to her, dousing her with the rich warmness of his russet eyes.
Priscilla blinked at the handsome gentlemen’s compelling gaze, generous mouth, and tightly trimmed beard. She tensed as he drew her closer than the proper waltz distance. He, who’d ignored her earlier attempts at conversation, now wanted to discuss her father?
Persistent brown eyes bored into hers, waiting for her to elaborate further.
“I beg your pardon, Mr. Goulart. I lost myself in the steps.” She raised her chin. “My father used to dabble within the War Department, but he has recently retired.” She stole another glance Nellie’s way.
“Ah. The War Department you say. You must be Admiral Middleton’s daughter.” He raised his hand and ushered her under his arm for a turn. “No one truly retires from the War Department.”
“Quite right.” She flashed a knowing smile. Papa’s visits, callers, and hand-delivered missives certainly hadn’t slowed.
Mr. Goulart leaned in and whispered, “I adore a lady with dimples.” His breath tickled her skin. “I do hope to see more of them.”
Heat spread across her cheeks and chest. It seemed flummery was catching. She’d heard many a compliment before, but not regarding her dimples. Dimples were adorable on children but not on a grown woman. She cleared her throat. “I’d thought, after Napoleon’s surrender, activity would have diminished, but my father still spends endless hours in his study, ambassadors and generals filing in and out.”
Mr. Goulart’s eyes widened. “You don’t say?” He removed his hand from her lower back and scratched his nose with his thumb.
The movement subdued the flash eagerness she’d witnessed in his gaze a second ago. Perhaps vapid females who only discussed the latest fashion trends weren’t his type. Maybe she’d misjudged him. Better he knew she had a brain and an opinion.
“Tell me more about my competition for your affection,” he said. “I’m certain, after discovering Admiral Middleton has such a lovely daughter, they called upon you as well?”
An inelegant snort erupted from her nose. “You jest.”
His expression remained serious.
She bit back her laughter. “Most of the men who call upon my father are well along in years, except perhaps Officer Campbell and Lord Asterly, but I daresay, they see me as an annoying intruder.”
His eye twitched. “An intruder, you say?”
The song concluded, and Mr. Goulart bowed while Priscilla curtsied. Laughter erupted on her left, belonging to Lord Eversley, another key leader in the Tory party.
She mentally measured strides to the main exit.
Mr. Goulart offered her his arm and escorted her off the dance floor.
“Care to take a turn about the room?” he asked.
“I just remembered another obligation I promised to attend. I’m afraid Miss Archard and I must be leaving soon.”
“I insist you stay. I’d be loath without your company.” Mr. Goulart placed his other hand atop hers.
In any other situation, she might have enjoyed the affectionate gesture, but not tonight. His heavy hand snared her in a trap. She had no choice but to stay on Mr. Goulart’s arm or make a scene, drawing unwanted attention.
When Priscilla didn’t respond, Mr. Goulart guided her to the perimeter, away from the crush of guests.
To her right, Lord Fortin strolled Nellie past the refreshments. Priscilla detested the curved smile Lord Fortin cast Nellie as though she were a feast he intended to savor. Could she not see that the man was a knave?
Mr. Goulart turned left away from Lord Fortin and Nellie. “Officer Campbell is an interesting chap. He and I became acquainted in the West Indies.” He stopped next to a large marble pillar in a secluded corner.
The knot in her spine released once she was out of the crowd’s direct line of sight. Priscilla angled so her gaze tracked Nellie.
“Have you seen him lately?” he asked.
“Who?” Priscilla had lost track of their conversation.
“Officer Neil Campbell, the man you said sees you as an interloper.”
“Last week, perhaps. He paid Papa a brief visit.”
Nellie and Lord Fortin headed toward the guest wing.
Priscilla’s jaw tightened. Her friend lacked an ounce of sense, and Priscilla was twice the fool for involving herself. More than ever, she missed Lottie, who’d married and moved to the Leeward Islands. Lottie would never have placed Priscilla in such a predicament.
“I thought he was supervising Bonaparte?” Mr. Goulart leaned his shoulder against the pillar. His chocolate eyes melted into hers as if she were the only person in the room, the only person left in England.
Her heart pattered. What she wouldn’t give to be the sole focus of a man’s admiration. Anyone’s regard for that matter. She thought of the time her Papa asked her to go for a stroll. He’d given her his undivided attention until he ran into a passing friend. From then on, she’d trailed behind as the men conversed. When they returned, the gentlemen walked straight into her father’s office and closed the door. She’d remained in the foyer utterly forgotten.
Mr. Goulart’s eyes glinted with victory as though he sensed her desire to be considered in such a way.
Priscilla steeled herself. Not tonight. She would not let her guard slip.
“Officer Campbell was known in Guadeloupe for having an eye for beautiful women.” Mr. Goulart grazed his knuckle down the bare skin below her capped sleeve and above her satin gloves. “Were you party to their conversations? If so, you may have learned of his rogue ways.”
The balcony doors opened, and a buxom woman dressed as Rapunzel from the Brothers Grimm story burst in and squealed laughter. A robust gentleman dressed as a huntsman pursued her.
Priscilla used the distraction to step from Mr. Goulart’s reach. She scanned the room for Nellie’s flowing white Greek goddess costume. Please let her be in here. Priscilla shouldn’t have taken her gaze off her reckless friend.
“Miss Middleton?” Mr. Goulart’s tone held a note of impatience.
“It’s surprising you wish to speak politics with a woman.”
He stepped closer, blocking her view. “I can tell you are not like most women. There is an intelligence about you.” His gaze flicked to where she’d last seen Lord Fortin and Nellie, and he, once again, rubbed the side of his nose with his knuckle. “I appreciate a woman with a mind.”
Each time he scratched his nose, a tingling prickled the back of Priscilla’s brain, sounding an alarm of unease. Was he distracting her from going to Nellie’s aid?
She followed his gaze, spotting Lord Fortin’s wavy hair and proud swagger across the ballroom. She released a sigh. “If I were an intelligent woman, I wouldn’t be here.”
Mr. Goulart blinded her with his full smile, and his deep chuckle reverberated. “And a delightful sense of humor, might I add.”
Lord Fortin stepped into the dim hall near the guest’s quarters. The wall candles had been snuffed out. His outstretched hand beckoned and Nellie emerged from behind a column.
Curls framing Nellie’s face swayed as she peeked both ways before slipping into the shadows with Lord Fortin.
“Blast.” Despite the room’s stuffy warmth, Priscilla’s palms grew clammy. She stepped forward, prepared to chase them. “Pardon me. I must go.”
“You never answered my question.” Mr. Goulart halted her with a hand on her arm.
“I must return to my friend.” She attempted to brush from his grasp, but he didn’t release her. “Thank you for the dance, Mr. Goulart.” She stared at his warm hand on her arm.
“Let me help you locate her.”
“I’m capable of finding her myself.”
“In good conscience, I cannot allow a young woman with delicate sensibilities to traipse about unescorted. Lady Lucille Lemoore has been known to allow”—he cleared his throat—“certain indiscretions. I wouldn’t want you to happen upon anything shocking.”
Priscilla’s insides hollowed. “All the more reason for me to locate Nellie immediately.” She nodded toward the guest hall. “I last spied her over there.”
He ushered her around the wainscoted perimeter. The cool breeze blowing in from the open terrace doors cooled her heated skin. As they approached, she glimpsed the flickering torches and their host Lady Lemoore slapping a man’s groping hand away with her mask stick. The woman entered the ballroom, passing Priscilla and Mr. Goulart, leaving in her wake the scent of expensive orange-blossom perfume.
Priscilla’s stomach tightened. What sort of debauchery would ensue when the hour grew late? She used Mr. Goulart’s body as a shield from view as they passed the refreshment table. She craned her neck for a brief moment only to spy her neighbors’, Lord and Lady Griffin’s, two elder sons filing through the entrance. Lady Lucille extended her hands in warm greeting.
Priscilla sucked in a breath. Thomas Griffin, the eldest, was easily identified by his bright red mop of hair. How many school holidays had he joined their family because his family had traveled north to their country house? She shrunk back behind Mr. Goulart, caving her shoulders to appear smaller and hopefully pass unnoticed.
Thomas could easily recognize her, and if he did, gossip would spread quickly. Only a couple more paces and she’d reach the dimly lit hallway where she’d last spotted Nellie. Priscilla gripped Mr. Goulart’s arm and lengthened her stride. As they rounded the corner, she tripped on the lacy trim of her Little Bo-Peep hem. Fortunately, Mr. Goulart’s grip kept her from falling.
“My neighbors.” The tight strings of her corset restricted her heaving chest. “If they saw me…” It could affect her brother’s distinguished naval career and her father’s status at the War Department. Her mother would not be able to face the co-chairs of the charity boards on which she served. “I need to leave.” She pressed against the wall of the vacant guest hallway. Doors lined either side where out-of-town guests slept.
He nodded as if understanding her predicament, but his slow exhale seemed more annoyed than empathetic. He guided her past a small jog in the hallway where they’d be less visible from the ballroom. “No one saw us. Everyone’s focus was on the door or Lady Lucille.” Mr. Goulart pushed her against the wall, hiding her from view with his body as a busy servant scurried past.
Priscilla lowered her face, grateful for her mask. “Are you certain?” The ornate wainscoting ledge dug into her lower back. Earlier, she believed only her reputation would be at risk, and she’d been willing to endure insubstantial gossip to gain a friend. But heaven above, why hadn’t she considered how this would affect her father’s political connections? And why hadn’t Nellie divulged that the masquerade party would be teaming with Tories? Priscilla’s fingers curled, and her nails scraped the wainscoting, though her gloves prevented any damage.
He stepped away and pressed his ear to a closed door before trying the latch and discovering it locked. “Things are about to get complicated. If you know what’s best for you, you’ll forget me, this night, and everything about it.” He moved to the next door.
How could things become more complicated? The casual way he spoke such ominous words scraped her nerves raw. “What do you mean? What are you suggesting?” She gripped his sleeve. “Where is Nellie?”
“Forget your friend. Leave without her and go to another party.” He tried the brass knob, but it didn’t turn. He strode toward the next door, his boots hardly making a sound against the hardwood.
While he tried the lock, a wicked smile twisted his lips. “You turned out to be a treasure, chérie.” His dipped his head. “Thank you for the information.”
Priscilla gasped at the brazen term—spoken in French when their country was at war with France. Merciful heaven. With whom had she been conversing? What information had she divulged?
She wracked her brain to recall their exact conversation while he stayed in the shadows, sneaking to the next door and once again pressing an ear to it. This latch gave, and he poked his head into the room, whispering Lord Fortin’s name. No answer. He repeated this process down the hall, moving like a stealth cat on the hunt.
Her body refused to move as her brain frantically tried to process Mr. Goulart’s threat.
He glanced at her and shooed her away with his hand.
She backed up, peeking around the corner toward the ballroom at the hallway entrance where the guests mingled. Her spine straightened. She couldn’t leave without Nellie. Laughter sounded nearby, and a door to one of the closed bedrooms opened.
She darted back toward Mr. Goulart only to discover him gone.
She was alone.
Her lungs refused to inhale, and the fine hair on her neck rose. She couldn’t have one of her episodes here. Anthony warned her that if anyone knew of her attacks, she’d be locked up in Bedlam. Calm down. You’re not alone. There were over fifty guests down the hall. Her feet, however, moved of their own accord as she dashed to the end of the hall through a study and back parlor. She flung open a door and collided with Mr. Goulart’s back.
He spun and stared at her as if she’d sprouted another head.
“Pardon. I didn’t mean to… I was…” She wracked her brain for an excuse, lest he believed her half-crazed for running blindly through rooms. “I was inspecting my manicure.” Manicure? With gloves on? Truly? Think, Priscilla. “My nail snagged my glove. I fear I wasn’t paying attention.”
He glanced around the back hall before pressing a finger to her lips and pushing her through an open closet door. “If you know what’s good for you, stay quiet and don’t move.” He shut the door, but the hem of her costume caught in the jam, keeping it from closing. The door cracked back open.
She stood frozen in the dark space. The smell of linens and cedar filled the cramped room. Her heart lodged in her chest, and sweat beaded on her brow. She no longer wished to be around Mr. Goulart, but being alone was even worse—especially in a darkened room. She clenched her fists to keep her hands from shaking as she peeked through the sliver of light, choking on an inner scream.
In the open door of a richly decorated sitting room, Lord Fortin stood before Mr. Goulart, adjusting the frill of his cuff. “I have what I came for.”
“We have company.” Mr. Goulart indicated over his shoulder, but not at her.
“Out the back, then?”
Mr. Goulart nodded, and they both strode toward the servant’s entrance. Mr. Goulart held the door open for Lord Fortin.
After they left, she crept out from her hiding place.
“You there. Stop!” Her father’s voice halted Priscilla’s steps. She braced for the disappointment in her father’s eyes and a stern set-down. However, Papa wasn’t in sight. Priscilla tiptoed to the open window. The night air chilled her heated skin. The flickering torchlight of the terrace revealed a man chasing two shadows. The vanilla scent of Papa’s favorite cheroot still hung in the air.
Papa wasn’t here on her account? He hadn’t been listening when she mentioned she was going out for the evening. She certainly hadn’t stated where she was headed. Papa would rather clean chamber pots than be seen mingling with Tories. If he hadn’t come for her, nor the event, then he must have come on assignment. The shadows skidded around the corner of the main house, her father’s silhouette disappearing shortly after. Was the War Department looking for those men?
You turned out to be a treasure, chérie. Thank you for the information.
Mr. Goulart's words hollowed her chest.
Good heavens. Had she danced with a French spy?

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