Colonial Courtships-Impressed by Love
HMS Aries, off the coast of New England
Phoebe flinched as another round of cannon fire slammed into Aries’ hull. The crew answered the blow valiantly, their great guns spewing round shot and fire. A muted cheer went up from one of the gun crews. Their ball must have found its mark. But it wouldn’t be enough to save them. The French ship of the line had twice as many cannon.
Lips moving in silent prayer, Phoebe paced the confines of the gunroom to which she had been relegated. There must be some way she could help without getting in anyone’s way. She was an Englishwoman after all. Should she stand by and raise not a finger to defend the ship?
She heaved open the door and stepped into the companionway just as another barrage from the French punched holes in the ship’s stout timbers. Her foot caught and she tumbled forward, striking the bulkhead as a cloud of splinters filled the air. She flung up an arm to cover her face. For a long moment she crouched on the deck, making herself as small as possible. Blood pounded so loudly in her ears she could hear nothing else.
It took her a while to realize that the men were cheering. Had they beaten the French back? Phoebe dared to peek then straightened to her feet. Beneath her the frigate seemed to dig into the water like a thoroughbred gaining purchase for a final sprint.Thinking to return to the gunroom, Phoebe turned, but a gaping hole marked the place where the door had been. A jagged crevice in the deck opened to the bread room below. Her mouth went so dry she couldn’t swallow. The choice had been made for her. She couldn’t go back, so she would go forward.She made her way up and out into the waist of the ship. Something warm dripped onto her arm and she raised her hand to her forehead. Blood. She must have been scratched by a shard of flying wood. She reached into her sleeve for her handkerchief, but it wasn’t there. Instead, she dabbed at the cut with the back of her hand. How was she going to be any good to anyone if she didn’t even have sense enough to carry a handkerchief?
She stayed where she was, out of way of the toiling gun crews, until at last she caught sight of Uncle John on the quarterdeck. He stood tall and proud, the gold lace on his captain’s uniform gleaming in the afternoon sun, his sword slung at his side. Deep in discussion with his first lieutenant, Mr. Loring, Uncle John motioned toward the shoreline looming closer and closer.
For an instant, Phoebe thought he meant to run the frigate aground in order to keep her out of French hands, but then she realized they were aimed toward the mouth of a river. Wily Uncle John. He must hope to escape by navigating waters too shallow for the larger vessel. She swallowed. God grant that the waters weren’t also too shallow for the Aries.
Behind them, the French ship’s chasers barked and spat. The cannon fire tore through the rigging, showering the quarterdeck with tackle and wicked splinters. Phoebe plastered herself even closer to the bulkhead.
When she looked again, Uncle John had collapsed to the deck. Heedless of the danger, she raced forward and hurled herself up the ladder.
Uncle John was conscious and trying to regain his feet.
His lieutenant held him down. “You musn’t, sir. I’ve sent Midshipman Hollis for the surgeon.”
Phoebe sank to her knees next to her uncle. Her gaze shied away from the stain spreading across his coat. “I am here, Uncle. We will take care of you.”
He didn’t seem to hear her. He grasped Mr. Loring’s arm. “Take us… Glassenbury. They’ve—” His words broke off in a grimace. His breathing grew reedy as he struggled to master the pain. “Shipyards.”
Gasping and pale, the midshipman appeared. “The surgeon is dead, sir.”
Phoebe’s gaze locked with the lieutenant’s. Tight as her throat was, she managed to squeeze out a plea. “We have to get him to a physician.”
Mr. Loring nodded. He stood and gave orders to the helmsman.
One thought pulsed through her. Please, God, do not take someone else I love.