Read a exerpt from my current book project:
MISTRESS AND COMMANDER
Sometime that night Sophia woke to find Fortune under the sheet and featherbed with her, his teeth chattering.
"How are you, my dear?" she asked.
"Cold. But I ought to thank heaven for this storm. The French have given up the chase, I think, and the men are kept busy saving the ship."
She kissed him and said nothing.
"Sophia," be said. "I can hardly bear it."
"Yes," she said.
"It's that obvious?" he asked in a fierce whisper.
"Yes. For days past. You're suffering."
"Do you know-you can't know-what it means to me to have you here. Oh, God." His bitter voice was muffled in her soft hair. "Every man on my ship is cal1ing me a coward."
When she fell asleep, Fortune lay awake as the ship labored around them. The slow drip of water from the quarterdeck above streaked the fragile barrier of oiled silk above their bed. His authority on Persuasion was as flimsy as silk, and as easily cut. He was one man alone on the sea, outnumbered by more than a hundred to one.
In an hour he startled awake. "The wind," he mumbled, and sat up, kissed her, climbed out to stagger across the bed place for his clothes on a hook, and shut the door behind him.
The great march of the waves was losing its rhythm, as if the wind were a spoon, stirring them as it blew. Clinging to lifelines strung on deck, Fortune nearly cried out as Persuasion staggered under a vast rogue wave breaking over her stem. But the frigate rallied and righted while the sea streamed below decks, though her hatches were laid and her hawseholes bagged. He turned to look aft and swore.
The Mordes-les was close on Persuasion's track.
"We saw her put her water overboard, sir," Lieutenant Bolt said when Fortune reached the quarterdeck. "Later she threw what looked like stores over the side, and then some of her guns. She's sailing faster, sir." Dawn had broken, but the two frigates were lifted and dropped in veils of water torn from the tops of the waves, so that daylight was no brighter than dusk.
Too heavy a swell. To great a danger. Descending in the troughs of the waves, Persuasion almost stopped dead, like a horse refusing a fence. Lifted to the summit of those vast waves, she was battered by a wind so fierce that Fortune waited for a mast to topple, or her sails to split.
"She's losing way in the troughs, sir," Bolt shouted to Fortune, who could only read Bolt's lips in the windblast. Persuasion must keep ahead of the following seas or they would smother her, slew her around, and the next wave would broadside and drown her.
"At least we'll have no gunnery in seas like this, sir," Bolt shouted. As if in answer, the Mordes-les, high on a following wave, fired her chasers that were trained sharp forward at her bows.
It was a freak shot, a lucky shot. Persuasion's foretopsail was hit at such an angle that it split.
Now all the crew's training day after day in the Channel showed itself: the captain of the foretop was already at the mast followed by the bosun's mates to secure the topsail.
The mainsail was close-reefed, but they were losing speed. Fortune yelled, "Number two foretopsail." The ship fell down the long slope of a wave and rose to the blast of the wind on another as the men fought to bring the split sail down and bend the new one. It was tight and trim when they came down, but as they stepped to the deck some of them fell, too exhausted to go below.
"Tell the purser that you're each to have a tot of rum," Fortune told them. Not one answered or looked at him as they passed.
Grabbing a backstay, Fortune steadied himself on the violently canting deck and stared through his long-glass at the French captain. The little man with the long whiskers--was he mad? This was no fleet action, where your aim was to save your ship while you damaged or destroyed the enemy. Both Frigates were racing toward death.
The captain of the Mordes-les stood under his streaming French tricolor. He was not wearing his uniform, but a black coat, as if he were in mourning. He was not going to wait out the storm, or be satisfied with a battle to board and capture. He meant to kill.
Fortune called for a midshipman. No use to clear for action yet, but another lucky shot from the Mordes-les might come aboard. "Give my compliments to Mrs. Croft," he said to the sea-soaked young man, "and escort her to the orlop."
Sophia sat in the great cabin with no light but the swinging lantern. Just as the midshipman entered, Sophia screamed: an enemy ball smashed through the wood and glass of the stern windows, knocked the dining room door to splinters, and vanished somewhere in the pantry beyond.
Waves struck through the shattered windows. Sophia fled to her swinging cot and leaped on its featherbeds while water flooded the floor.
The midshipman saw she was safe, and ran to the quarterdeck. "Is my wife hurt?" Fortune cried.
"No, sir," the midshipman shouted back. "She's on the cot, sir."
"Send the carpenter and his mates to board those windows," Fortune said, "and you must carry Mrs. Croft safely down to the orlop."
"Aye aye, sir," the young midshipman said. He ran for the carpenter, then struggled back to the great cabin. The door was open. Seawater poured from inside, soaking the Marine guard to his knees.
"Ma'am," said the midshipman to Sophia, "Captain says to carry you to the orlop, ma'am."
"It's wet, ma'am."
"Yes," Sophia said. The midshipman had waded to her.
"I beg your pardon, ma'am, but if you'll put your arms around my neck from behind, I can carry you on my back."
He was a strong young fellow. His face had been slightly blue around the lips as he waded icy water in a soaked coat and breeches. Now his face was turning from blue to pink as he backed up to the featherbedded, lavender-scented cot and felt Sophia's arms around his neck. She could do nothing but jump for him as the cot swung, and fell so low against his back that he had to lift her from behind, and grew redder still with his hands under her rear. Her breasts were against him now, and her breath was on his cheek.
There he was with his red-haired burden when the carpenter and his mates appeared the great cabin. Sophia could hardly hang from a midshipman’s shoulders like a long unwieldy sack, so she had hugged his hips with her petticoated knees, and her small feet in their wood-soled boots traveled before him.
The carpenters stood away from the door to let the midshipman and his burden pass, water rushing about their legs. He carried Sophia through the dining room door past the sentry, along the narrow hall, waited for the deck to rise and shed the sea, then made for the nearest ladder that led below. "He'll be bragging on that for the rest of this here storm," said the carpenter.
Fortune stared aloft from the quarterdeck at the taut, complaining sails. "Put a team of men on the wheel," he told Bolt. "Four prime seamen, Two glasses to a trick." In a sea like this, alone at sea, he would have had the frigate under nothing but a close-reefed foretopsail, but in this mysterious, frantic pursuit he had to keep ahead. Soon he would have to pump away their fresh water-tons and tons of it-to lighten the ship.
"Now pass word for Benbow and Winsly with their crews," Fortune said to Bolt, and gave them his orders for the carronades.
The ship's main guns were no use in those seas. Persuasion's two best gun crews cast loose the carronades at the stem while a towering wave advanced, topped with yellow foam. It raced toward them, a black wall blurred with c1ouds of spray. Persuasion's stem lifted to meet it, lifted and lifted until tons of sea slid under her counter, and there was the Mordes-les plummeting down the slope of the following wave.
In a few minutes Persuasion's larboard carronade roared, and then the starboard.
They were stubby little "smashers" that fired heavy shot at short range. The crews and Fortune peered through spray and rain, but could see no damage done before the Mordes-les sank out of sight in the wave trough. She fired as she descended: they saw the flashes before the swell of the new wave hid the frigates from each other.
Calder, waiting by his gun, rode with Persuasion up a wave's dark mountain. As she poised a second on that summit, he saw the Frenchman hull-deep in foam at the top of his wave. Then both frigates disappeared in their own gun smoke as they slid down the oncoming troughs.
A toothless old sailor at Calder's elbow shouted above the wind: "Ain't never seen such a dance," and swept the rain from his face with a calloused, bleeding hand. Every man's hands left thin streaks of blood and rain on their handspikes and rammers: they spent hours at the pumps, but the sea came in as they pumped it out.
"Devil's dance," Calder shouted back. "One ship's going to die."
"Aye," the old sailor shouted. "First one what's bad hit."
"He wants to give us a broadside," yelled one gun captain. "Turning and aiming for our rudder."
"Tell Lieutenant Bolt to start half of our water," Fortune said to the midshipman at his elbow.
Fortune sensed when the water was gone, for Persuasion drew ahead enough to put a foaming mountain of the sea between them and the Mordes-les more often. The increased speed wasn’t, enough. He would have to order cannons jettisoned.
He opened his mouth to scream the command. A double blast from his carronades drowned his scream. Through the rain and smoke he saw that one of Persuasion's guns had found a mark.
Every man on Persuasion's deck froze and held his breath.
Slowly, slowly, as if the wind, rain, sea and ships had all paused, the foremast of the Mordes-les, cut in two, parted from its stays and began...so indolently, so gradually...to descend. Little by little the mast and sail carried away across her bows.
Unhurried, fifty feet high, an immence wave cradled the French ship as she lay broadside on its curl, broached-to.
The Mordes-les slid down that mountain on the leisurely, huge thrust of the sea. Slowly, slowly she rode whole for a last moment: a ship on her side, her captain careening down his quarterdeck, her crew dangling, sliding, clinging, falling, mouths open in their white faces.
Then she was no ship at all-nothing in the howling wind but a tumult of water, foam, sails, and spars.
The massive swell of the sea closed over her, smooth and black, and traveled on.
"Gone," murmured a staring gunner.
His mate couldn't hear him, but he read his lips, and put his mouth close to the gunner's ear. "Gone?
Thousands of pounds--that's what's gone, mate. Captain could have had that frigate a dozen times. Us'd be rich. Rich."