Sunday Snippet: Captain's Surrender
It’s been ages since I posted an excerpt of anything other than my work in progress, so I thought it might be nice to revisit the book that started it all. This is from Captain’s Surrender, first accepted for publication by Linden Bay Romance in 2007, actually published 2008 with a (frankly fairly horrible) cover and then re-released in 2010 by Samhain with one of my favourite covers ever:
Love? Might as well ask for the moon. But a man can dream…
Despite his looks and ambition, Midshipman Joshua Andrews hides urges that, in his world, make him an abomination. Living in fear of exposure, unnecessary risk is something he studiously avoids. Once he sets eyes on the elegant picture of perfection that is Peter Kenyon, though, temptation lures him like the siren call of the sea.
Soon to be promoted to captain, Peter is the darling of the Bermuda garrison, with a string of successes behind him and a suitable bride lined up to share his future. He seems completely out of Joshua’s reach.
Then the two men are forced to serve on a long voyage under a sadistic commander with a mutinous crew. As the tension aboard the vessel heats up, their unexpected friendship intensifies into a passion neither man can rein in.
Intimacy like theirs can only exist in the shadow of the gallows. Both men are determined their “youthful curiosity” must die before it brings disaster down on them. Yet neither man can root it from his heart. Warriors both, they think nothing of risking their lives for their country. In the end they must decide whether love, too, is worth dying for.
Portsmouth Naval Dockyard, 1779.
The bell rang out twice, unbearably sweet. The drums rolled and were silent. As a wind from the sea ruffled the hair of the assembled company, Joshua Andrews looked to one side of the gallows, his eyes unfocused. There was a thunder and rattle as the trapdoor fell open and then, just on the edge of hearing, the snap of a neck and the collective intake of almost five hundred held breaths, as the Nimrods instinctively inhaled to make sure they still could.
“I should say, ‘May God have mercy on his soul.’” Captain Walker did not choose to wait even a moment in respect, but clapped his hat back on directly and bestowed a satisfied look upon his crew. “But I know it would be futile. No mercy awaits a man like that, either in this life or the next.”
Josh tried not to react, but when Walker’s intense gray gaze swept the row of midshipmen, it seemed to pause on him, threatening as a pistol thrust in his face. He made no movement, gave no sign of the panic trying to crawl up his throat, the certainty that Walker knew, and fought down the wholly irrational urge to break and run that would be every bit as bad as a confession.
At length, the gaze passed on to terrify the boys standing gape-mouthed and shaken at Josh’s right. “Particularly not on my ship.” Hat on, the captain moved down the uncovered ranks of his ship’s company, on the alert for movement, for signs of repugnance or weakness, seeming to swim through their fear like a shark. Beside Josh, twelve-year-old Hawkes swayed, face stricken and white, and while Walker’s back was turned, Josh reached out and squeezed the child’s wrist, setting him upright with a little comforting shake that reassured them both.
Josh, twenty years old and acting lieutenant this past year, was the only oldster among the midshipmen. He found himself at times playing the part of elder brother, even father towards them. It was not a position he particularly relished. Taller than his peers by a good foot and a half, his unlucky red hair uncovered and obvious beneath the sun, and clad—ridiculously—like the other boys, he felt conspicuous enough already without the knowledge of another difference, carried like an invisible brand in the soul.
“Take a good look, lads.” Walker’s red face was jovial, his eyes in slits of flesh, gleaming with satisfaction. “Whatever your previous captains hushed up for the good of the service, you will not find the same tolerance here. No secrets on my ship. This man was coxswain’s mate. Now he’s crow bate. Heed the warning.”
He began to walk back, past the company of marines, their scarlet uniforms almost obscenely cheerful in this place of execution, past the ship’s people, past the lieutenants, and back to the midshipmen. Taking his cane from beneath his elbow, he pushed at their faces with it, angling them until, without closing their eyes, it was impossible for them not to watch Henderson’s body jerk and tremble at the end of the rope.
Josh did not wait to be manhandled, but fixed his gaze on his shipmate’s shirt-ties and hoped, prayed, that the flailing of limbs and the agonized expression on his face were the result of involuntary spasm, not the signs of a soul in torment. Fear and shame rose up in him. Shame for Henderson, from whose stockinged feet urine dripped—such a neat man in life, and now so stripped of dignity—and for himself. For this was the fate that awaited him should he ever be caught. This was an outward demonstration of the consequences of his vice, the minimum necessary to appease God, before whom he was an abomination.
At the thought his fear turned into anger. He could have done as Portsmouth’s urchins were doing on the waterfront—picking up clods of refuse from the shore and pelting Henderson’s hanging body with them, shrieking curses. Stupid! It was stupid of the man to have done anything on board, let alone be lured and entrapped by one of Walker’s informants. Surely he had known that Walker was the greatest tyrant ever to stand on a quarterdeck, spending ink and energy and vitriol to “clean up” the service. Surely Henderson had known this, and yet he had still been foolish enough to welcome the advances of a shipmate. What could have possessed him? The famine of shipboard life? A death wish? Poor bastard! Poor, stupid, pathetic bastard.
The wind freshened, and the clouds drew away from the sun. A chilly, autumnal light drenched the pale stones of the dockyard and glittered on the sea. Walker’s fellow captains of the court martial put on their hats and walked away, talking soberly, the taller bent in an uncomfortable “C” towards the shorter.
Walker tucked his cane beneath his arm once more, light sharp on his gold braid and blazing from the diamond buckles of his shoes. He opened his mouth to speak, and the sound of a carriage interrupted him, coming hell for leather down the quayside, its flamboyant driver plying his whip like a young rake.
Iron shod wheels slid to a stop in fountains of sparks. The Nimrods pretended not to notice as the footman got down and turned the gilded handle of the door. Josh allowed himself to smile as, from the corner of his eye, he saw Walker’s complaisance shatter, his brow darken at this affront to his personal piece of theater. All around Josh there was a cautious craning of necks and shifting of positions to see the newcomer, and he had to hiss out of the corner of his mouth to Midshipman Anderson to stop the boy incurring the captain’s wrath by actually stepping forward.
Josh found that if he shifted his weight just so, he could watch the unfolding of steps, the brightly polished black shoe and gentleman’s leg in a silk stocking descending. There were white breeches and now the skirts of the coat, a deep indigo no less gorgeous for being worn by every officer. There were mariner’s cuffs, shiny brass buttons displaying the fouled anchor outlined in heavy gold braid. When fully emerged, the prodigy was revealed as nothing more than another lieutenant of His Majesty’s Navy, a parcel of orders clutched to his breast.
Josh should have been disappointed. This was surely the man sent to fill the Nimrod’s vacant berth, reducing Josh from “acting lieutenant” back down to middie with the rest of them. He should be wrestling with resentment, hating the sight of the man. But for some reason he could not quite manage it.
Saluting, the stranger introduced himself. He was very tall and slender, his face all angles and bones, with clear, sea green eyes into which the illumination of the autumn sun seemed to pour. Or perhaps it was the clarity of his spirit that shone out as he smiled depreciatingly at Walker’s purple wrath.
“Captain Walker? My apologies! The axle cracked outside Kidderminster, and on the road through Weston we were waylaid by highwaymen. My watch said five to the hour as we entered the yard, so I had them crack on as fast as they could. I hope I am not late?”
Automatically, Walker checked his timepiece. His mouth thinned into a stroke of wire as he held out a mute hand for the orders. Not allowing himself to wilt beneath the glare, the young man handed them over, straightened his shoulders and stood impassively while Captain Walker checked them.
“Not late, Mr. Kenyon,” said Walker, at length, with a cold fury that made the young man’s smile fall away and his expression harden. “But you are a damned abominable coxcomb, arriving in this manner. You have missed your profession, sir—the navy does not exist as a backdrop for your theatricals. What do you mean by it?”
Around Josh a sense of thankfulness rose off the crew. The heavy gaze of officialdom had been shifted from their backs. Henderson still trembled, swaying pendulum-like on his gibbet, but the trembling of the living eased and there broke out, here and there, the reluctant smiles of those who are glad this was happening to someone else.
Josh was overwhelmed by a sensation he had never felt before. Lt. Kenyon had bowed his head to study the cobbles by Walker’s feet, and Josh found himself fascinated by the elegant curve of his neck and by the refined white hands lying in the small of his back. He was captivated, too, by Kenyon’s shoulders—narrow but lithe—and his black brows and lashes, so startling under the white wig.
Josh badly wanted to do something to encourage the man to move again, so lightly he had descended from the carriage. How would he walk? How would he hold himself if he were to dance? He looked as though he should dance. Hell—with the fine poise of him, he looked as though he should fly; unfurl a great pair of white-feathered wings like the Archangel Michael and fly.
“I meant nothing, sir, but desired be here at my appointed time. As you see, the hospital would not release Lt. Ollerton. There have been complications. And as I must be in Bermuda as soon as is humanly possible, it seemed good to all that I should take his place.” The green eyes swept up, not at all abashed, but honestly concerned. “Were you not informed?”
“God’s blood, man! Do you question me? Will I have to bring you to a proper subordination, Mr. Kenyon? I should have thought the object lesson behind me would induce you to remember your place.”
Though he had not known there was such a person all of five minutes ago, something twisted in Josh’s throat at the thought of Kenyon on the gallows. What was bitter with Henderson, beside whom he had worked for three years, would be sheer blasphemy in the case of this stranger. But why? Why would he almost rather feel the rope about his own neck? How was that possible? What… What was the matter with him? He didn’t even know the man!
Confused and a little frightened by the strength of this…whatever it was, Josh looked away, then back, and by chance, he caught Kenyon’s gaze as it swept the rows of silent men, looking for support or advice. Kenyon was older than him, certainly, his face settled into adult lines, but his eyes…oh. Oh, they were like a pool of fresh water in the desert. Josh had not known before how thirsty he was, how he yearned for that cool, for that refreshment. His mouth fell open; he took a half step forward. Kenyon smiled an uncertain, polite smile, which filled his chest with sunlight, and his lips had twitched in answer, involuntary, when Walker laughed.
It was a cynical, sudden bark of laughter, as humorous as the report of a pistol, and it shocked through Josh in much the same way. The fragile moment of joy disappeared under terror. He knows nothing! He has no proof! I was just smiling! Mother of God, what came over me? What was I thinking?
He looked back at the corpse, as if for council. Its protruding eyes seemed to mock him, as if to say, “Do you still think me so stupid now?” He breathed in shakily, appalled. Was this what Henderson had felt for the informer? This tie of the soul, this abandonment of all caution, as though nothing else existed in the world but the two of them?
Josh had been at sea since he was thirteen, had not mixed in the most refined company, and did not believe in love at first sight. More than that, he had never heard that sodomites were capable of love. Since childhood, he had heard that he was a beast, driven by perverted appetites, not a rational being whose heart could be moved by beauty or lifted by a smile. He was not worthy to love this fine young officer, not even to admire him from afar.
But—Mary and Joseph—suppose it was love! How fitting to fall in love in the shadow of the gallows. Watching Henderson finally settle into stillness on the end of his rope, he tried to resist the urge to look back at Lt. Kenyon as he might have tried to resist the urge to breathe. When he gave up, allowed himself a stealthy glance, he found that Walker was watching him, with the gleam of triumph in his eye.
The steady world fell out from beneath his feet. For such a long time he had been sure of his self-restraint, certain that whatever the captain suspected, he could prove nothing. Now Walker was watching him, with the pleasure of a fisherman who has finally discovered the right bait.