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BBW Lady Luck - by Marlow

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Marlow

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~BBW, History, Romance - elegant ballrooms, gallant paramours, swashbuckling adventures, and a world-famous appetite


Lady Luck
by Marlow


Chapter 1


April, 1809
- Bay of Biscay


HMS Tryphena rocked gently on the swell, sails furled. One of her lookouts had reported the sound of gunfire in the distance and all hands stood in terse silence, listening intently and staring across starlit water at the rocky coast of France.

Few aboard minded the waiting. The unlucky frigate had weathered a furious storm in the channel, delaying her departure for days. She’d finally made sail only to find herself with a rolling sea and an angry wind against her bows. With her newer hands belowdecks, too seasick to haul on a rope, she’d barely made it around Ushant without being dashed onto the rocks.

All that toil had carried Tryphena only as far as Douarnenez. It had been a miserable first leg of a long journey that only looked to be getting longer. The 250 souls aboard could only pray for better luck, knowing there was plenty of treacherous sailing ahead before they would reach the Mediterranean station and the tedium that awaited them there.

Pausing to listen offered a much-needed respite, therefore, but one tinged with anticipation. The sound of gunfire carried the tantalizing prospect of action, of glory, and, above all, of prize-money. There were rumors that Napoleon’s fleets might soon attempt to break out and the long-suffering men aboard Tryphena were starving for a chance at battle.

But as hard as they listened and as furtively as they wished, nothing more echoed across the water. The captain paced the quarterdeck in his shabby overcoat, putting on a fair display of stoicism. He had grown accustomed to disappointment through a long and miserable career at sea, but his junior officers found themselves less able to conceal their frustration.

After an hour the crew stopped holding their collective breath. The men of the foretop returned to their interrupted chatter, muttering about shoreleave, about Polly, an amorous tavern-keeper who seemed a little jollier and a lot heavier every time they put into Port Mahon, and about the exhausting, wretched beginning of their voyage

“What a run of misfortune,” sighed a new hand. “You’ve sailed with the Captain Muir, eh? Is it always like this?”

The older topman snorted. “Mate, everyone in the service calls him ‘Bad Luck Ben,’ ain’t you heard?” He glanced aft, where the captain paced in silence. “Nothing against his seamanship, of course. Not many men could have slipped us through them rocks yesterday. A good fellow, even if the wind’s always against him.”

“He’s hardly helping himself, ain’t he?” the young man scoffed. “Bringing a parson on board, setting sail on a Friday…and Joe here tells me he saw the captain step onto the ship with his left foot.”

“Joe told you that? Joe don’t know his left from his right.”

“Sure I do,” protested Joe, pointing to his shoe. “It’s the unlucky one.”

“Shut up, Joe.” The topman folded his arms. “Now as to luck, maybe our captain ain’t as blessed as some, and maybe he cares a little less about the calendar than he should, but we could always be worse off. I been at sea as long as anyone aboard, mind you, and there’s only one thing you can bring aboard a ship that’ll truly blow its luck.” He leaned in close. “And that’s a woman.”

Joe nodded gravely.

The new hand frowned. “And here I recall you leading a pair of plump young ladies by the arm across our very gundeck when I was stowing my chest.”

“Which it’s a different matter when we’re in port, you lubber, safely anchored and open to visitors…lovely, lovely visitors. And you call them plump, ha, you should’ve seen the woman Joe here met in Cadiz, during the peace. Hips were too wide for his hammock, so they were, and when he tried to sneak her out through the gun-port she ended up stuck. Chips had to cut her out.”

“A magnificent woman,” sighed Joe, smiling. “You know, I saw the Lady Hamilton before we made sail, being helped into her great carriage at Merton. The way that carriage leaned to one side, ha…talk of hips, ha…talk of lavish living, ha…”

“Quiet, you oaf,” hissed the topman, standing. “On deck there! Something in the water!”

“Where away?” came the response below. A midshipman dashed forward.

He pointed. “Starboard bow.”

All eyes swiveled to follow. They saw a ripple ahead and, emerging from the night into the glow of the ship’s lanterns, the shadow of a small rowboat. A lean figure hauled on the oars with clear desperation.

The ship burst into hushed activity. Marines hurried to the side, but it was soon apparent that the little boat was no threat: the ragged figure within took one final stroke and slumped over. The boat drifted on, bumping up against Tryphena’s hull.

Ropes were thrown over and hands raced down to secure the boat. There was some panicked whispering and one of the mates climbed back up. He said something to the first lieutenant, who promptly went pale.

“Pass the word for the doctor,” he called, striding aft to confer with the captain.

The men crowded close to catch a glimpse, but as the officers regained their composure they set about shouting them back to their posts.

One man raced to his mates in the foretop, waving a small, tattered slip of paper. “Couldn’t see much, but I grabbed this from the bottom of the boat.”

The old topman squinted at it. After shoving Joe aside, reminding him that he couldn’t read anyway, he declared, “I can’t say I know much French, but I’d wager it’s an invitation, see, to a big fancy soiree.”

“That some kind of party?”

“Aye. You know those grand balls aristocratic coves like to throw for each other. Big dinners, big ballrooms, big dresses...”

Joe examined the paper. “Is that...blood?”

The ship’s surgeon arrived on deck, bag in hand. He met the captain and the first lieutenant at the rail and they promptly went over the side.

Captain Muir was the last to drop into the rowboat. He dismounted from the ladder, raised his lantern, and followed the surgeon’s amazed stare.

A young woman sat in the stern, gasping for air and murmuring breathlessly in French. A pistol lay in her lap. Her trembling hands clasped the giant center-stone of a glimmering diamond necklace.
 

Marlow

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(1, continued)

“I wager she’s a thief,” said the first lieutenant, once the stranger was safely aboard.

The doctor drew the sickbay curtain. “It’s possible. Or she has run from home or trouble with the most valuable item she could carry. Bonaparte’s France is not as peaceful an empire as he would have us believe.”

The captain stepped between them, slipped out of his overcoat, and draped it over the woman’s shoulders. She was dangerously slender, as though she hadn’t eaten a true meal in weeks, and was dressed only in a tattered, threadbare slip. Even in the warmth of the sickbay she shivered violently.

“I am Captain Muir,” he stated slowly, in his thick Scotch accent. “You are aboard Tryphena, of the Royal Navy. May I ask your name?”

She looked back at him blankly.

He frowned and repeated the question in a halting attempt at French.

“Adelaide,” she replied at last, hoarse.

“Adelaide,” echoed the captain. He bowed. “Benedict.”

She smiled weakly, mouthed his name back to him, and listened politely as the doctor, who spoke perfect French, and the lieutenant, who spoke none, introduced themselves in turn. When they were finished she summoned up what strength she could and asked a question of her own.

The doctor stiffened and looked at the captain.

“What did she say?” whispered the lieutenant.

“She asks us to take her away,” translated the doctor, as she spoke up again. “She’s…begging us to get her as far from here as ever we can, as quickly as ever we can.”

The lieutenant scoffed. “Thief, then. A murderer, even. Or a spy. That pistol had been recently discharged.” He glared at the woman. “In any case, His Majesty’s Ships are not private yachts to be summoned and ridden about like a post-chaise. Especially by an enemy.”

Captain Muir watched her eyes. He took a long breath and shook his head. “We will make sail, Mr. Calder. Course for Finisterre, as before.”

“Sir, you can’t mean to keep her aboard.”

“Our rendezvous is at Malta. We can put her ashore there, if it’s far enough away for her wishes.”

“Sir, this may be an agent of the enemy. She—”

“If she is an enemy, she’s currently in no position to do us any harm. For now she is our guest. Get her anything she needs.” He reached for the curtain, but paused. “And get her something to eat.”




The men saw little of their passenger at first, which was well enough in their minds. If she had to be aboard, keeping the new source of bad luck at least out of sight seemed the safest option. The woman’s recovery from whatever ordeal had sent her racing for their ship was immediately complicated by seasickness and she passed the first week of her voyage confined to the sickbay.

The crew’s mood did not improve even after the weather began to calm. Chatting with a local fishing boat, they learned that a battle had broken out in the harbors of the Basque Roads. The British fleet there had met a French squadron trying to escape and conducted a glorious, daring raid.

They quickly grew surly, thinking of Lord Cochrane snapping up all those French prizes and making himself richer while they languished. Tryphena’s tribulations in the channel had delayed her enough that she’d missed all the action and any possible reward.

To add further insult, the wind failed them the next day, stranding them in Biscay’s dangerous waters. It was bad luck; there was no other explanation.

“And now, sod it all,” grumbled the topman, “we’ve got a woman aboard. A woman…nothing unluckier than that, Joe.”

Joe nodded. “Larboard watch says she’s a witch.”

Tryphena’s men were a deeply superstitious crew, but they were a deeply curious crew, too, and contrived any opportunity they could to catch a glimpse of their passenger and learn more about her. The doctor suddenly had an abundance of volunteers attending his quarters and half the lower deck seemed struck with uncharacteristic hypochondria.

He kept her sequestered, as much as anyone could be sequestered on a crowded ship only 130 feet from bow to stern, but gossip began to flood out. And where gossip fell short, speculation filled in.

She was uncommon pretty, reported the sailmaker to his mate, though skinnier than that marooned lad they’d picked up last year. Three times as hungry, too, according to a steward who knew French, but the doctor would only feed her that nasty paste of his.

The men of the mess shook their heads. Even their hardtack was preferable to the doctor’s gruel. The cooper’s mate was entering into a familiar monologue on ship’s biscuit when the yeoman of the sheets arrived, begging for more news on her ladyship.

They shushed him—ain’t he heard enough from his own mess and damn his eyes for asking so loud with Mr. Calder nearby—but soon erupted into a whispering frenzy.

She had long, flowing hair as black as powder, a nose as sharp as a schooner’s bow, and eyes that shone like the moon over a calm sea; at least according to the coxswain. But the coxswain was an amateur poet with a very limited range of metaphors and his descriptions weren’t to be relied upon for accuracy. An angelic face, though, which the parson himself had acknowledged, and shouldn’t the parson know?

Though mess-talk was typically ribald, now they chided any statements about the woman’s figure and physical assets. She possessed neither, after all, being so skinny and frail. She was also believed to be under the captain’s protection, which lent her a sacred and untouchable aura.

Moreover word had spread of her string of enormous diamonds. Though the steward’s French was incomplete at best, he had eagerly reported recognizing some references to nobility in her conversations. There was the ball invitation, too, which had circulated. The men decided that their passenger must be very wealthy, if not royalty, and likely to reward the crew’s kindness with all the riches of the world-spanning French empire.

She finally appeared on deck a week later, having regained enough strength in the doctor’s eyes to take air. She was greeted by a silent, captivated audience that followed her every move. Anyone who could contrive a reason to be above decks was present and the boatswain was actively beating the off-duty hands back to their hammocks.

The midshipmen scolded the crew for staring, to no avail, and soon turned to look themselves. The lieutenants made a better show of gazing fixedly ahead, but glanced over with embarrassing frequency.

Adelaide hardly seemed to notice, at first. Closing her eyes, she took a long breath of sea-air, filling her slender chest.

She’d been outfitted in a spare suit of sailor’s slops and the billowy shirt and trousers were absurdly oversized for her meagre frame. The wide-necked blouse hung half off her shoulder and a sudden gust whipped it up in a manner that made all present blush. She seemed oblivious to the exposure, or at least unashamed.

The doctor led her on a slow tour of the deck, quietly explaining some of the ship’s features and history—32 guns, 800 tons burthen, that’s English tons, ma’am—though she was clearly ignoring him. She was instead happily meeting the eyes of every awestruck mariner she passed, giving them each a grateful smile.

They tried to puff out their chests and look busy with their duties, but couldn’t help but smile back, sighing deeply and nudging their mates as she walked on.

She completed her tour and was shown to the quarterdeck. The officers doffed their hats as she glided over to meet with the captain. He spoke with her a while, out of earshot. “At your command, madame,” was all anyone could make out.

He looked as stiff and cheerless as ever, but after a while they could hear the woman laugh; a joyful, relieved sound that echoed deep into the holds of the ship and up into the maintops.

The captain gestured up. The older hands had noticed it, too: the gust that had ruffled the woman’s shirt was the first of a new wind, a very welcome wind across the ship’s quarter. On the horizon, a few rays of sunshine peaked through a break in the clouds.

“There, now, you see, Joe?” chortled the topman. “Which I told you the lady would be good luck, now, didn’t I?”

 

Marlow

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Chapter 2


May, 1809 - Gibraltar


Tryphena
’s more seasoned hands would recall that, while it was not their fastest trip around the Iberian Peninsula, it was without question the smoothest and most comfortable. The sky was open and bright, the sea gentle, and the wind steady. The frigate proceeded languidly down the coast, stopping frequently to trade news with Portuguese boats or deliver dispatches to the British squadrons she met.

Compared to their tumultuous passage through the channel, the latter days of the voyage to the Mediterranean were a leisure cruise. The superstitious nature of the men before the mast was nothing new, but soon even the more educated officers began to wonder aloud if the reversal of fortune was connected to their new passenger.

Once her seasickness had passed, Adelaide’s health had returned quickly and, with it, an effusive social energy. She seemed to adore the attention of the sailors and rarely allowed herself to be alone, attaching herself to various groups from the morning watch until often late into the night.

She knew nothing about sailing, but was eager to learn the ways of the ship. She watched the officers at their duties, she assisted the surgeon in the orlop, she sewed sheets with the sailmaker, and she leaned on ropes with the idlers. She was evidently quite fond of the cook and spent many hours helping him in the galley.

To the first lieutenant’s consternation, Captain Muir had given her free reign of the ship and every cabin, watch, and mess was open to her fascinated attention. She set about learning some English from the Francophone officers, though their efforts were often undermined by the crew’s delight in teaching her the more profane parts of their language.

The sailmaker’s party had crafted her a lithe white dress from Tryphena’s spare number 8 canvas, modeled after glimpses they’d caught of London’s elite ladies, with a high waist and gathered skirt. It was tasteful enough, at least in intent, but she wore it in a way that displayed the most possible skin.

Many tried to ignore the exposure, but she found countless opportunities to display herself in ways that sent the parson scrambling below. As she grew comfortable with the ship’s ropes the men taught her how to climb aloft and soon she could be seen skylarking in the maintops every morning, dress aflutter.

Eventually the parson begged the doctor to intervene; surely a woman, especially one recovering from some ordeal, was not safe flinging herself about at such heights? But the doctor waved him off; surely the parson had seen what the activity had done for her health? Surely he had remarked upon the improvement of her figure, that the frail waif they’d brought aboard now possessed muscle and mass enough to hoist herself along?

Yes, the parson had noticed. All aboard had noticed, given how little she wore, how quickly she was filling out.

“When we pulled that woman from the water,” the doctor observed, “she could not have weighed much above seven stone. Unconscionably lean.”

The parson chuffed. “She has added a stone to that already, if not more, and hardly seems satisfied.”

Men both before and abaft the mast had witnessed the woman’s appetite. Perhaps it was whatever privation she had experienced in France, or the relief of having survived an ordeal, or a dormant habit now liberated, but both the galley and the wardroom cooks were grateful to be so well-provisioned.

She often messed with the crew at mealtimes. Their service-standard rations were no culinary achievement, but always substantial: every week each man was owed four pounds salted beef, two pounds salted pork, and two pounds of peas, along with heaping quantities of oatmeal, sugar, butter, and cheese, and of course there was the daily issue of grog. Adelaide ate as much as Tryphena’s stoutest hands despite sharing in none of their physical exertions and was often seen picking from neighboring trays.

When the midshipmen could work up the courage, she would be invited to join their haphazard suppers in the gunroom, asking for a second helping of plum duff while the young gentlemen gaped at her. The lieutenants and warrant officers dutifully invited her to their wardroom dinners in turn, doing their utmost to impress her over lobscouse and pudding.

The almost skeletal frame that had come aboard quickly smoothed. Her face grew less sallow and color returned to her cheeks. There were still no real curves to leer at, but there was certainly now some substance beneath the thin sailcloth dress. She could be seen some evenings on the quarterdeck, gazing out at the ship’s gurgling wake and contentedly massaging her gurgling stomach.

Captain Muir, being too poor to host the lavish executive dinners common aboard other ships, typically contented himself with simple naval fare. Adelaide frequently invited herself to the great cabin regardless, picking at leftovers while he pored over his charts.

“Thank you, again,” she said one evening, reaching for more biscuit.

He looked up from his writing-table. “It’s our pleasure. I’m…sorry we don’t have anything more refined to offer you. Tryphena hasn’t been a very…lucrative command.”

“Silly,” she giggled. “You and your men have been perfect hosts, mon capitaine.” He bowed. Adelaide set down the biscuit, pursing her lips. “Can I ask another favor of you?”

“Of course.”

She nervously fingered her necklace. “Is there somewhere on board…somewhere safe, where I can keep my diamonds?” After a long hesitation, she added, “they are all I have.”

The captain thought for a moment. “I can speak with the purser. He’s responsible for the ship’s funds and will have places to stow valuables. And I’m sure he’d be happy to let you visit your diamonds whenever you’d like.”

“Oh, that would be perfect. Thank you.” She took a large bite of biscuit to celebrate her deep relief. “I want them safe, but I hate the thought of hiding them away forever.”

“Beauty should be seen,” he agreed. Their eyes met, briefly, and he quickly looked back for his papers.

Adelaide returned to her meal. “The lady who had the necklace before,” she recalled between bites, “she never wore it. I only ever saw it on her once…I was delivering fruit to the house as she was leaving for a gala.”

The ship’s bell rang. Feet pounded on the decks overhead as the watches changed.

“I loved going to that house. It was a magnificent chateau up on the hill…you could look out and see the whole valley. I’d beg to be sent there with the deliveries and I’d linger as long as I could. If I was lucky, I could sneak off to see the garden, or the gallery, or the library…” A wistful grin spread across her face. “…or the kitchens.”

“It sounds like a lovely place,” he offered, trying his best to follow her rambling French.

“But, then, they would always find me and curse me and hurry me back down to the village. And all I could do was envy them.” She sighed, swallowed a few more bites, and eyed the captain. “You’re not disappointed?”

“Disappointed?”

“The crew all seem to think I’m…wealthy. I heard one man, Joe, telling another that I was a countess…” She gave a sheepish laugh. “…that I owned half of Bordeaux.”

The captain shook his head. “Our sailors never like to let truth get in the way of a good rumor.”

“I didn’t mean to deceive them…deceive any of you. But it’s…I’ll confess, I’ve enjoyed playing the part for them. It’s a life I always envied. Maybe too much.”

“Too much?”

Adelaide lowered her voice. “It wasn’t passion or patriotism that made me flee my country in the middle of the night. It was envy. The nobles…new or old…I hated how they treated people, but oh, I wanted their life so badly. And I thought, maybe, these could give me that chance.”

She removed the necklace and set in on the table. The giant center-stone reflected her pout.

“They told us the revolution had made us all equal, but the rich care as little for those below them as ever. I saw that truth…that night. But the way the rich help each other…I always thought if I could make them think I was one of them, they would take care of me.”

A knock announced someone at the door. A midshipman poked his head in and, seeing Adelaide in the cabin, flushed red and made a hurried bow.

“Yes, Mr. Irving?” asked the captain.

“Um. Oh. Mr. Calder’s compliments, sir, and some of the officers are begging permission—they being musical fellows, sir—to perform a short concerto this Sunday, with the lady—her ladyship—your ladyship, ma’am, being specially invited.”

The captain glanced to her ladyship, whose conflicted frown had been entirely replaced by a warm gratitude. “So kind,” she managed in English. “That sounds wonderful.”

“My compliments to Mr. Calder,” sighed the captain, “and he has my permission. Let them perform on the forecastle, so the whole ship may partake.”

“Thank you, sir,” stammered the midshipman. He bowed, stared at Adelaide for a moment, bowed again, and backed slowly out of the cabin, eyes wide.

“I’m told,” the captain mused, rising to shut the door, “that we live in enlightened times. Sometimes a smile like that is worth more than any hereditary estate.”

“Flattery, mon capitaine?”

He passed her the rest of his own dinner, largely untouched. “I can’t say I know much about nobility and I know even less about wealth. But Tryphena is her own little kingdom. While you’re aboard, as far as I am concerned, if you tell us you’re a noble, then we’ll call you a noble.”

“And when we reach our destination? What will I be when I disembark?”

“When we’ve sighted Malta,” he mused, “just tell me how you’d like to be introduced.”

She smiled. They sat while in silence as she ate, listening to the change of watch on deck and gazing out the stern-windows at Tryphena’s wake, roiling and tumbling out toward the gold and violet sunset.
 

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(Speaking of Treason's Harbor...)


Chapter 3


June, 1809 - Malta


More fine weather carried HMS Tryphena past Gibraltar and into the glittering waters of the Mediterranean. Winds from the east welcomed the frigate with warm air, but slowed her progress. She tacked lazily against the breeze for days, zig-zagging through the straits under a cloudless sky.

All hands kept an eye on the horizon, watching for the sail of some French merchantmen or privateers in the hopes of taking a prize. The other eye they kept on the woman who roamed their ship. There was no longer any doubt that her presence aboard explained the difference between the storms of their early voyage and the pleasant sailing they now enjoyed.

They regarded her with fascination and reverence. Their superstitious nature had given rise to a Byzantine system of mores and taboos for interacting with Adelaide and all possible efforts were made to keep her happy and satisfied, to ensure the ship’s new luck would hold.

Between the warm air and her hearty appetite, she had become a picture of health and almost regal grace. Her complexion grew rich and lustrous, her hair grew bouncier and more voluminous, and her lines grew less severe. She was still a slight figure, but there was now a decidedly more feminine curve to her hips, a smoothness in her cheeks, and a faint rise in her chest.

The doctor, thrilled with how quickly she was recovering and regaining strength, had estimated her at just over nine stone: still light, but a far cry from the bruised, pallid, malnourished near-cadaver he’d first met.

It was this same appetite that carried her on deck the morning they finally made landfall, her stomach growling at the aroma of the officers’ breakfast. Smoothing her dress, she followed the scent of sausage aft and found everyone gazing out to starboard.

“Good morning, ma’am,” said Lieutenant Calder, hearing her approach. He pointed. “We have sighted Malta.”

She congratulated him. He went on to describe their approach to the island and the formalities of reaching their destination, but Adelaide furtively moved past him to the small breakfast table.

It was a beautiful sight, she acknowledged once her stomach was happier, and they had arrived at the perfect time to view the island in its best light. The fine quartering breeze carried Tryphena around St. Elmo point and the ship’s whole company gradually came on deck to watch.

Flags flashed about on a great tower above the peninsula. Tryphena answered with the private signal and her number and rounded the point, gliding into the Grand Harbor of Valletta.

Adelaide stared up as they drifted along. From the quay she could see the vast, opulent palaces of the Sciberras, with their baroque facades and gilded coats of arms. The elaborate fortifications along the Floriana gleamed under the summer sun.

She watched young couple, hand in hand, make their way up the steps to a sprawling garden on the headlands. They were dressed in the latest cosmopolitan fashions and the man carried what looked to be a very heavy picnic basket.

Tryphena floated on. The first lieutenant barked a series of orders; hands ran aloft to adjust sails. The waters grew calmer and the frigate eased toward her moorings among the squadron of British battleships anchored below the fortress.

“Ready the barge,” said Captain Muir, adjusting his jacket. He stepped over to Adelaide. “I’ll be going across to the flagship to report to the admiral. If you’re ready, we can introduce you and ask for help in getting you situated…”

Adelaide nodded. She gazed up toward the garden, looking for the wealthy couple.

“I don’t know if it’s as far from France as you were hoping,” the captain added, “but the base of the Mediterranean Fleet is as safe from the gendarmes as you’re likely to find.”

“And a new start.”

The admiral’s flagship signaled. Muir donned his hat and stepped forward.

Adelaide grabbed his arm. “Mon capitaine,” she whispered, glancing back at the other officers, “can I beg one more favor?” She swallowed and switched back to French. “If we’re going to meet the admiral, if I’m going to be introduced…will you help me keep up my pretense?”

He looked at her. “You’re sure?”

“I want to take my chances on a new life.” She gave him a conspiratorial grin. “And I feel very lucky.”

Tryphena anchored. The men put her boat over the side and loaded it with oarsmen, dressed as pristinely as they could manage. The captain and his passenger descended and the barge shoved off, reaching its way across the harbor.

The flagship was a massive, 74-gun behemoth, a floating citadel next to the sleek, cramped Tryphena. Compared with the drably furnished frigate, the admiral’s ship was a luxurious palace, its boards holystoned to perfection and its brass polished to blazing brilliance. The admiral was equally resplendent in his full dress uniform, medals twinkling in the morning sun.

The ensemble made Captain Muir’s faded, threadbare uniform look even shabbier and he felt the full weight of aristocratic judgment as he climbed aboard and presented his dispatches.

“Forgive the ceremonial appearance,” begged the admiral. “We are hosting a few of the knights for a dinner this evening. Welcome to Valletta, by the way.”

“Thank you, sir,” Muir replied softly, shaking his hand.

“We had expected you last month. As soon as you’ve resupplied, we’ll need to get you up to Lissa as soon as possible. With Cerberus laid up, we desperately need another frigate in the Adriatic.” He eyed Tryphena, apparently unimpressed. “You meet with any action on your way down, at least? Find any Frenchmen to chase?”

“Our only action was a storm in the channel, I’m afraid, sir.” He turned at the sound of cautious movements behind him. “But as for Frenchmen…”

Adelaide emerged onto the deck, climbing with the spryness she showed every morning in the maintops, her hair and her dress fluttering into the breeze. Tryphena’s sailmakers had crafted a svelte new gown for her, with colored ribbons slyly cut from the ship’s spare flags, and her diamond necklace was on full display.

Activity on the deck immediately ceased and a hundred eyes swiveled to study her, her necklace, her neckline, and her nervous but inviting smile.

The admiral, his flag-captain, and the crowd of lieutenants whipped off their hats.

Muir ushered her forward. “My Lord Admiral,” he managed, clearing his throat, “allow me to present Adelaide, the Madame de…”

They hadn’t decided on an alias. He floundered for a moment, desperately searching his limited French lexicon for something that sounded like a believable estate, only to regurgitate the last word she’d said.

“…Chanceuse?”

“Ville-Chanceuse,” Adelaide offered.

“A…devoted royalist, sir, from a family long friendly to the Bourbons.” The admiral seemed pleased with this, so Muir continued. “She’s been widowed by the machinations of the Emperor, but managed to escape his tyranny and the confiscation of her property.” He glanced back at Adelaide. “…properties.”

“Upon my word,” breathed the admiral. He stepped forward and kissed the delicate hand she extended. “How pleased I am to meet you, my dear. I’m sure such an escape required no small amount of courage. Certainly you have an appetite for valorous action…”

Adelaide listened politely, but uncomprehendingly. She smiled again and quietly repeated “appetite.”

“She speaks very little English, sir,” Captain Muir interjected. “Though she’s eager to learn. She’s come to ask if she may prevail upon the hospitality of a British protectorate until the war is over and she can be restored to her…to her rightful estate.”

The admiral took a long look at Adelaide and her diamonds. “Of course. Absolutely. All possible hospitality, as due a lady of her station.”

Adelaide seemed to understand enough of his meaning. Her eyes brightened with joy and she began to thank him profusely, tripping over her words. But she quickly recollected herself and instead performed an elaborate attempt at a curtsy, showing a scandalous amount of leg and bending low enough that if she’d possessed more of a bosom it would have fallen from her dress.

The men aboard the flagship gaped all the same. The men still aboard Tryphena, watching from across the harbor, reddened with jealousy.

“I think you will find Valletta very welcoming,” the admiral assured her. He straightened, as though struck by a brilliant thought. “Not quite Paris, but plenty fashionable. My friends the Torcias maintain rooms at one of the great houses in town…I have no doubt they’d be delighted to entertain so lovely a guest.”
 

Marlow

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Chapter 4


The Palazzo Cirenaico, from its position in the heights, commanded a spectacular view of both the Grand Harbor and Valletta’s active commercial center.

Like so many of Malta’s great houses, the palazzo was of baroque inspiration, with an elaborate limestone façade full of arches and neoclassical pilasters. A weathered cornice ran unimpeded around the lengthy structure, looking down on the rows of sculpted windows and stone balconies. As long as the building appeared from the street, it was just as deep, wrapping around an expansive courtyard filled with fountains and statuary.

The interior proved no less opulent. Frescoes covered its vaulted ceilings, depicting rising spirals of Mediterranean birds, imploring the eyes to gaze higher and higher, to the stained skylights. Paintings lined the walls between gilded furnishings and local flora. Opposite the grand staircase was a sprawling masterpiece, depicting Aristippus at the school in Cyrene, discussing philosophy with his well-fed students.

“Mon dieu,” said Adelaide, trying not to faint.

The elegant Mrs. Torcia smiled. “I’ve visited every palazzo in Malta. This has always been my favorite.” A native Neapolitan, her English was little better than Adelaide’s, but she spoke enough French to be hospitable. “When the British Commissioner allowed us to bring our business over, I told Mr. Torcia that I would not settle for any other home.”

“Business must be very good,” Adelaide observed, eyes lingering on a painting of tropical fruit.

“Very. We sell naval supplies, ha. And we keep the house quite busy. There are always diplomatic envoys and naval officers and other esteemed visitors like yourself coming and going, expecting a certain level of refinement in their accommodations. We’re happy to provide and entertain.” They proceeded through a door into a cavernous banquet hall. “And I do love hosting parties. You should have seen the gala we held in Naples before the…oh, I am being rude. You must be exhausted…and hungry.”

Adelaide straightened. “Starv…ah, I must admit, yes, it’s been a long morning.”

“Of course. Let me show you to your room. You have no luggage?”

“No, just myself. Everything I own is back in France…almost everything.” She instinctively adjusted her necklace.

Mrs. Torcia led her up the curve of the staircase. “That tyrant takes everything he can get his hands on. We saw it firsthand in Italy. I feel for you, my dear. What a trying ordeal…a lady of your station confined aboard such a cramped little ship with those filthy-minded British seamen, without so much as a perfume bottle for comfort. You are a heroine, my dear.”

“They weren’t so bad,” Adelaide murmured, following her down a long hall, hoping her stomach wasn’t rumbling too audibly.

The hall ended at an arched door, gilded escutcheons upon its handles. Mrs. Torcia held a side open and ushered Adelaide into a palatial suite, lavishly furnished with marble and mahogany, so large and so tall it seemed impossible that the chamber should fit within the building.

Despite all efforts to maintain a regal composure, Adelaide froze on the threshold. Her host seemed to take the hesitation as a compliment, though, and beamed proudly while Adelaide gathered herself.

They slowly toured the suite. Mrs. Torcia happily recounted the origins of all the magnificent furniture and boasted about some of the more recognizable names who had stayed in the room—some recognizable even to Adelaide, who knew little of politics and its players—while her guest followed in subdued silence. The bathing-room was larger than the cottage Adelaide had grown up in.

“The American painter, Hermes Allen…surely you know him? No? Hm. Well, he visits the island every so often, since the climate seems to help his gout. He left us this fine piece last year. It’s rather vulgar for my taste and I almost refused to display it, but he assures me it is a scene from antiquity.”

She indicated a broad painting above the headboard. It showed a gathering of women in thin, often translucent silk peploi, lounging around a fountain, drinking wine and laughing. Servants were bringing out dishes of food and indeed the women seemed universally well fed. Plush midsections, rolls of flesh, and dimpled softness could be seen through their garments.

Turning a corner they entered a dining alcove, lit by a bay window. A table had been set with a variety of luncheon offerings: a basket with several kinds of bread, a bowl of brightly colored vegetables, two steaming, dome-covered platters, and a bottle of wine.

The table was flanked by a pair of sculptures. From behind the one on the left, a Grecian bust of a young woman, emerged a busty young Greek woman carrying silver plates and utensils.

Adelaide watched her arrange the place settings and pour out the wine. Without thinking, she pressed a hand to her whining midsection.

“Since you came without a maid,” explained Mrs. Torcia, “I have asked our Zephyra here to help with anything you may need. Nominally she is employed by our kitchens, but she is a woman of many, many skills. Zephyra, may I present Madame de Ville-Chanceuse…”

Adelaide curtsied, though with more restraint than earlier.

Mrs. Torcia turned. “Where is Ville-Chanceuse, by the way? I know so little of the French countryside. It is in the countryside, I assume?”

“Yes, oh, um…” She shifted her weight for a moment. “A little way between Landerneau and, uh, Chambery.”

Mrs. Torcia eyed her for a moment, unsure if this was a joke. “How coy you are,” she laughed. “Well, you must point it out to me on a map sometime. I’m so ignorant of geography. I cannot tell you how long I spent looking at our globe, trying to pick out the second Sicily.”

“Certainly, ma’am.”

“I am not, however, ignorant of hospitality. While you’re staying with us, please consider all my resources available to you. And never think of it as a debt. You are a fellow lady of society and I consider it my duty to see that you continue to live as such.”

Adelaide’s heart fluttered. She breathed out a nervous sigh. “You are too kind, Mrs. Torcia. I—”

“Not at all. You would surely do the same, were I washed up in France. Anyway, we have been desperate for a new face in Valletta and we’re very lucky to be graced with a pretty new one like yours. The other ladies in town will be absolutely delighted to meet you…I shall present you at the commissioner’s dinner on Saturday, if you are quite recovered by then. A full course meal from one of Malta’s best chefs, some music, some dancing…yes. Let me go and speak with my husband. Zephyra will help you settle in.”

The woman departed, pulling the ornately engraved door shut behind her. Adelaide watched her go and felt her entire being relax.

“Mon dieu,” she murmured. Turning, she found the maid standing by the table with a wry grin.

“You’re lucky she’s so gullible,” said Zephyra, setting down her tray.

Adelaide paled. Several questions formed in her throat, but there was little point. “You won’t tell her, will you?”

“I’m not the one you need to worry about. Her friends will be a little harder to fool. They watch everything and they dissect everything. The reason they’re so desperate for a new face is that they’re desperate for new gossip. You’ll need to get better at playing the part if you want them to buy you as some big heiress, French or not.”

“It’s…I hate needing to deceive them.” She fell back onto an enormously plush chair. “I just wanted some freedom. That dinner-party sounds so lovely and I’m so tired of watching those things from the outside.”

Zephyra set herself on a stool and leaned in close. “So take the opportunity. Who knows how long it’ll last. Listen, I’ve been working with these people a few years now. I can probably teach you how to, say, act ‘genteel’ and ‘elegant’ and such…show you which fork goes where.”

“Would you?” Her face brightened, but fell. “I can’t pay you, though. I have nothing to offer.”

The maid smirked and set a hand on her knee. “Not yet, maybe. Listen…I’ll help you play the part and keep up the act. And when they all fall in love and you move on to bigger and better things, you take me with you.”

Adelaide shook her hand. “Bigger and better things.”
 

Marlow

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Chapter 5


Shirtless sailors grunted and wiped sweat from their brows. An officer shouted an order and with grim determination they seized their ropes and hauled again.

The belay system creaked and groaned. Straining, the men lifted a massive cannon from the wharf into the air, all twenty-six hundredweight of it, swaying it across the water and over the deck of their ship. When it finally settled into place the men doubled over, panting. The boatswain hollered at them: shorthanded as they may have been, there were still the carronades to load.

Adelaide shifted and wiped a dribble of broth from her lips. She watched the ship’s activity from a café near the harbor, enjoying the afternoon sun and some fine Maltese fare.

Her stomach gurgled. Savoring the aroma, she leaned forward and lifted her spoon one more time, sucking down the last dregs of a surprisingly deep bowl of stew. Zephyra had recommended the local dish, rabbit fried with wine and garlic, and it had lived up to her praises in every respect. Letting the spoon fall into the empty bowl, she let out a faint moan and eased back in her chair to let the fullness in her stomach settle. The waiter appeared beside her: there was still dessert to try.

“I don’t know,” she murmured, in vain.

The waiter smirked. “The English call them ‘honey rings.’ They represent eternal happiness…” Before she could protest, he’d produced a tray with two of the plump, sweet-smelling pastries on a tray. “…a life overflowing with blessings and goodness.”

They were indeed overflowing with goodness, as their rich filling oozed out from every seam. As Adelaide finished the first she began to feel that she, too, would soon be overflowing and would have burst a seam if her borrowed dress were not so roomy.

Pausing to breathe and massage her fullness, she glanced up in time to see a frigate gliding past in the harbor: Tryphena, heading out to sea once more, on its way to join the Adriatic squadron. There was Lieutenant Calder, urging the men aloft to make sail. There was Captain Muir, quietly watching the ship’s progress from the quarterdeck.

Adelaide leapt up from her seat—a motion her stomach loudly resented—and hurried toward a nearby wharf, waving.

Someone in Tryphena’s tops pointed and shouted. The men on deck turned. Seeing her, they bellowed out cheers, greetings, and well-wishes, some bawdier than others, despite the lieutenant’s reprimands. The captain stiffened suddenly, then swept off his hat and gave a polite bow.

Adelaide opened her mouth to give them a cheer in return, but a small belch snuck out instead. She pressed a hand to a sudden pang in her stomach and blew out a long breath.

Then the ship was past, riding the tide and setting sails to catch the landbreeze. Adelaide blew them a kiss.

“You alright?” asked Zephyra, hurrying over.

“Just wishing them good luck. They were so kind. I hope they’ll be safe.”

Zephyra cocked her head. “Ready to head out, then? Mrs. Torcia said not to come home till we’d picked you out some dresses.”

Adelaide nodded. “Almost. I do think I’ll try to finish that second pastry first.”




Beyond its political upheavals, the revolution in France had also led to a revolution in fashion, for while Europe’s monarchs looked at Paris in existential horror, its elite socialites still watched the city for its aesthetic trends.

The fall of the Ancien Regime’s traditions had liberated a new concept of the self and encouraged a fervor for expressing both that self and the body that contained it. Gone were the tightly-laced corsets, trains, and cumbersome bustles, replaced by clothing that celebrated the natural form.

The soft, sheer fabrics had become thinner and looser, allowing them to drape across a woman’s curves, displaying her beauty without restricting her movements, often showing far too much for the older, more conservative eyes. Mrs. Torcia had been appalled at the scandalous Lady Hamilton’s “attitudes” back in Naples, however scholarly or artistic the vile seductress had claimed them to be.

“It’s modeled after the ladies’ fashions of antiquity,” Zephyra explained, closing the dressing-room curtain. “You want to look like a Grecian goddess.”

Adelaide fumbled with the skirt of her new dress, a pale blue ensemble with shining lutestring ribbons about the neckline and cuffs. “I’ve never seen a Greek goddess. We couldn’t afford much schooling…I remember something about a table spread with ambrosia.”

Zephyra sighed and stepped over to help her. “Nudity a la Grecque…it’s about showing yourself off. Think of the painting in your bedroom. And when we add trimmings and lace and ribbon…” She wrapped a sleek black band around Adelaide’s thorax, accentuating what little bosom she had. “…we’re not decorating the dress so much as we’re decorating you.”

“It’s so comfortable, too. I’m scared to think how I could ever afford something this beautiful.”

“Well, there you’re in luck. Mrs. Torcia takes care of her friends when they’re in need. And as long as she thinks you’re someone worth knowing, she’ll treat you like a friend.”

Adelaide straightened and paced the little room, enjoying the swish of the silk across her skin. Passing a small window, she paused and gazed out at the harbor. “Hm. There they are again.”

“What’s that?”

“You’ve…been in port a while?”

“Nearly ten years, now.”

“I noticed…in the evenings, there are all these little boats that swarm around the ships. They don’t seem to be carrying any supplies.”

Zephyra laughed. “Those are the local harbor-ladies.”

“Ah.”

“A sailor who hasn’t seen the feminine curves of a woman’s body in months…sometimes years…” She coyly traced her own supple curves for emphasis. “He finally gets into port…that is a ready and reliable source of income for a girl of a certain mind. Sure, they leave again, but there’s always another boat on the next tide, full of men just as desperate to spend their wages.”

Adelaide looked back through the window. Indeed, a man in a nearby sloop was helping a heavily made-up woman aboard, glancing over his shoulder for any officers.

“That’s how I met Mr. Torcia, actually,” Zephyra continued, “when he first came in with the merchant fleet. Told me how he loved a ‘robust woman,’ ha. Then after Mrs. Torcia arrived, he hired me up at the house. Not sure if it was out of guilt or to keep me close and available.” She smiled to herself.

“How do you like the new employment, entertaining the wealthy instead of entertaining the sailors?”

“I do love the palazzo. But to be honest, I still come down to the boats, now and then. The sailors can be so kind, as you said earlier.” She lowered her voice and gave Adelaide a knowing grin. “And the exhausting nature of their service certainly gives them a great deal of…stamina. That’s why they feed them so much more than a body would normally ever need ashore, you know.”

Adelaide furrowed her brow. “What do you mean?”

Zephyra eyed her for a moment. “Well, all that extra work requires a lot of extra food—”

Mrs. Torcia exploded into the dressing-room, ending the discussion. Adelaide hurried to compose herself as Zephyra backed away.

“Superbissima,” Mrs. Torcia gasped, looking Adelaide up and down. “What a vision you are. Too much skin for my tastes, but I understand how you young ladies are, and certainly a woman direct from France knows what’s in style. Yes. I insist you have it. Don’t even tell me the price. Oh, come outside. Come…I must see how it looks in the sunlight.”

It looked even more superb in the sunlight. Mrs. Torcia congratulated her on such a perfect choice and begged Zephyra to go in and find her a matching hat.

Zephyra returned a moment later with a wide-brimmed cap that seemed to suit Mrs. Torcia’s tastes. Adelaide tried it on, cocked it a touch, and twirled herself around.

The breeze promptly plucked it from her head. It sailed across the walkway, despite the women’s worried calls, rolled toward the jetty, and had nearly hurled itself into the water before a nimble hand shot out and seized it by the ribbon.

Adelaide gaped. The hand—and now the hat, along with her undivided attention—belonged to a tall, fair-haired, absurdly handsome man in a scarlet uniform. He raised the hat and looked around until his bright eyes landed on the trio of ladies applauding him.

He bowed and started across the thoroughfare.

“You lucky girl,” breathed Mrs. Torcia, squeezing Adelaide’s arm. “That is Commander Brenton, with the British garrison, and I have…never seen that look in his eye.”
 

Marlow

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Chapter 6


September, 1809 - Valletta


The clatter of pans and hushed cursing stirred Adelaide from her sleep. She rolled over in the sea of voluminous cushions and silks that was her bed, yawning delicately and greeting the early morning sunlight with a contented sigh.

She sat up against her wall of pillows and waited awhile, studying the painting of the Cyrenaics and listening to the city’s morning bustle. Eventually there was another bout of clumsy shuffling followed by another hissed oath, closer this time, and finally the service door burst open.

Zephyra entered, walking very carefully, her attention concentrated upon balancing the overloaded dining tray in her arms. She paused mid-step and closed her bleary eyes for a moment, taking a long breath. Opening them, she caught sight of Adelaide and flushed.

“Oh, you’re up already,” she said, sheepish. Her hair was astray and her dress rumpled.

Adelaide kicked her blankets away and made her way—it still seemed like such a long way, even after several weeks—to the edge of the enormous bed. “I didn’t want to miss a moment of what promises to be a beautiful day.” She pulled a robe on over her sleeping gown and squinted out the window. “And maybe I sensed breakfast was making its way up.”

“I probably wasn’t very quiet,” Zephyra admitted. She chuckled to herself and set the tray on the dining table. “Sorry about that. I confess…I didn’t come back to the house until, ah, very late.”

She distributed the plates. Adelaide bounced over and slid into a chair, eagerly inhaling the billows of steam. The palazzo’s cooks were infallible: eggs, bacon, sausage, a local flatbread, and a Maltese variety of coffee boiled with aniseed.

“A happy evening, I hope?” she asked between bites, watching Zephyra rub her forehead.

“Too happy for my gown good. The boys from Sybaris were finally given shore-leave and the way they carried on at the tavern, you’d think the captain had stopped their grog months ago. They nearly had to wheel me back up here in a cart.” She steadied herself on the back of a chair. “My head’s still swimming.”

Adelaide poured her some of the coffee. “I thought I’d heard singing outside.”

“They knew how to treat a lady right. And I may not be as skinny as I used to be, but I was plenty popular.” She leaned down for the cup, nearly spilling out of her dress. Zephyra’s popularity was nothing new in Valletta. She was known to possess one of the largest bosoms in port and though she had indeed grown soft in the years since taking employment at the house, developing a sagging stomach and a doughy chin, much of the additional weight had only added to the size and allure of her chest.

“Well, I’m happy for you,” Adelaide offered, slicing her second sausage.

“You’ve been plenty popular, yourself.” Remembering something, she straightened and produced a stack of folded notes. “Three new admirers have thrown their hats in the ring. But the one on top, there, that’s your commander again.”

Adelaide plucked it from her fingers with more hurry than was probably decent. After apologizing, she opened and read the topmost letter—twice over—while finishing her helping of eggs.

“Commander Brenton desires that I meet him in the upper gardens this morning,” she announced, trying not to blush. “He promises a…picnic.”

“What a charmer.”

“A perfect gentleman. Oh, I’ll have to look like a perfect lady. Can you help me pick something out?”

Zephyra considered it. “There’s the yellow dress. That could do well in a sunny garden. But wait, no, you and the Torcias are doing dinner at the commissioner’s tonight. You were saving the yellow for that.”

“The commissioner’s…I completely forgot.” She frowned and reached for the bacon. “Well, I’ll wear the yellow to the gardens. And then, since I’ll be in town, we can go back to the dressmaker’s for something new to wear this evening.”

“Busy day,” Zephyra mused, pouring more coffee.

It was a picturesque day, too, just as Adelaide had dreamed. Wisps of cloud sailed overhead and the water glimmered in the harbor below. The morning breeze had diminished and the gardens, despite their height, were an oasis of quiet tranquility.

They were only a short walk from the house, but Adelaide had moved more slowly than she’d planned. Brenton was already waiting at the appointed fountain and although he’d nearly given up hope he composed himself with his usual dashing politeness.

They toured the garden’s walkways for almost an hour, marveling at the sprawling flora. The commander proved very talkative, though only in English.

He’d recently caught up on all the news from the continent: the latest coalition against Bonaparte had collapsed and Austria was preparing to negotiate yet another treaty. Brenton had a great many professional opinions about the war and its battles and soon fell into dryly describing the last campaign. Adelaide had heard of Vienna, but few of the other cities he mentioned, and could only nod along, trying to show that she was listening intently.

“I’m being dull,” he finally realized, with appropriate horror. “I promise, madame, I did not ask you up here to list the distribution of regiments in Bavaria. I must admit to being nervous and find my powers of speech clinging to their more familiar subjects.”

Adelaide glanced around. They’d entered a large clearing, populated by other socialites taking their leisure. Several were now looking their way, murmuring quietly to one another, but the truth was readily apparent in their expressions: envy. Adelaide was new to the city, an exotic figure, and so far unattached. The man on her arm was not new, but much pursued; he was ludicrously handsome, well-educated in the humanities, and well-connected back in Britain. Brenton had already rebuffed many of Valletta’s most eligible bachelorettes.

Some of them were even now in the garden, glaring at Adelaide. Feeling their eyes, Adelaide patted his hand. “Commander, you have nothing to apologize for. I like hearing your voice, even if I can’t follow all the…maneuvers.”

He visibly relaxed. “You’re always too kind to me. You must share your voice, too. Tell me a boring story. Or something happy, so I can see you smile.” He took her hand. “Tell me about home. I hear that part of France must be lovely.”
 

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(6, continued)

Her face fell, but she quickly forced a smile. “Very. Yes, lovely.” She coiled her arm into his and leaned against him. “But, commander, you promised me a picnic. I’m famished after all this walking.”

Brenton was a man of his word and if he’d noticed her hurry to change the subject he never acknowledged it. He led her into a quiet grove, where a pair of his soldiers had laid out an opulent luncheon. They saluted and marched off.

Adelaide brightened immediately, squeezing the commander’s hand with a delighted pressure that forced out all his doubts.

They shared a large platter of salmagundi filled with assorted local meats, accompanied by polenta and followed for dessert by zeppoli. Brenton was less interested in the meal than Adelaide and soon fell into the recitation of a poem he had been composing about the Tyrolean Rebellion. Adelaide dined happily, lulled into a comfortable contentedness by the idyllic autumn air and Brenton’s rich, reassuring voice.

The picnic basket also produced a bottle of ’85 Chanbolle-Musigny, which they split while watching the boats ply the harbor below. At length they lapsed into a comfortable silence. Adelaide glanced over at him; they studied one another for a moment and, finding their faces suddenly very close together, shared a long, unprompted kiss.

Adelaide was in amazing spirits when the commander delivered her back to Zephyra, at the edge of the market, her dress tellingly rumpled and her cheeks rosy with embarrassment and wine. Brenton played the perfect gentleman, as always, but struggled to conceal his boyish glee when she asked when they could meet again.

“You lucky thing,” Zephyra grumbled, watching him leave.

“Feeling better?” giggled Adelaide.

“Much. But apparently not as good as you’re feeling.”

“Mm,” was all Adelaide said on the subject, but her smile lasted the whole walk through the market and the hour it took to select another new dress.

It was a deep violet, much more appropriate for evening engagements, in Zephyra’s opinion. Mrs. Torcia would hate how short the sleeves were, but seeing her bristle was half the fun.

Since they were in town anyway, they stopped at the wharfside café and grabbed a pair of the honey-rings Adelaide had come to enjoy. She contemplated the walk back up to the house while wiping the crumbs from her lips, conceded, and sheepishly asked Zephyra to hail a carriage.

Upon returning to the palazzo, they were informed that the dinner would be delayed until later in the evening. Grateful for the extra time, Adelaide hauled herself back upstairs to her chambers and collapsed onto a chaise lounge with a weary groan. Zephyra laid out the new dress and turned to ask Adelaide about accessories, but she had already dozed off.

She remained there the rest of the afternoon, sleeping off the day’s indulgences and dreaming of Commander Brenton.

Zephyra had a bath drawn when she finally sat up again. Adelaide stripped and slipped carefully into the basin, basking a moment in the steam before lowering herself the foam. Floral aromas wafted up as she sank down. A tray appeared beside the basin, littered with finger sandwiches and plump slices of fruit.

“So, again,” the maid droned, proffering her sketch, “the soup spoon’s first, then these forks in succession…”

Adelaide nodded absently, sipping at a glass of wine between bites.

The lesson drifted on, only half-heard. “…and if you don’t plan on finishing everything on a plate, set your silverware on it like so, to let the servers know you’re done.”

“Mm-hmm,” she murmured, draining another glass. She reached for a sandwich, but found the plate empty. Zephyra sighed, but Adelaide could only smile.

She continued smiling as she slipped into the glimmering new silver dress, moving slowly and lazily. Zephyra arranged her hair into a crown of curls and adorned it with borrowed jewels. Adelaide pulled on her imposing diamond necklace and beamed as it outshined all the other gems. Standing to gaze at her reflection—a reflection so unlike the ragged woman who had fled her home—she swayed momentarily and pressed a hand to her full stomach.

Even after a long, rollicking carriage-ride with the Torcias, she smiled still as she was led into the commissioner’s mansion. The ballroom glowed with golden luxury and rang with haughty laughter. A small orchestra played in the corner for a crowd of men in brass-buttoned jackets and women in a brilliant array of swishing dresses. They turned as Adelaide appeared on the staircase, staring up at her with a mixture of lustful amazement and vicious envy.

She saw none of their glares. A banquet table ran the length of the room, set with a spread of lavish dishes that would have shamed the chateau’s evening affairs back home. The commissioner’s cooks had prepared a full-course affair of meats and delicacies and selections of wine that would stretch late into the night.

“May I present Madame de Ville-Chanceuse?” offered Mr. Torcia, guiding her forward.

A large gentleman bowed and kissed her hand. “Madame, you are most welcome. Commander Brenton has sung nothing but praises in mentioning you and you exceed even his most exuberant, um, poetry. How are you finding Valletta? Settling in? May I answer any questions?”

She took her eyes off the banquet. “What’s for supper?”
 

Benny Mon

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Everything else gets put on hold when you publish a new story, Marlow, and each setting is as different and fresh as the last. Loving this romp through the Mediterranean of the Napoleonic era, and can't wait for more!
 

Marlow

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Chapter 7


January, 1810 - Palermo


Many of Sicily’s noblest families had come out for the winter ball, determined to impress and outshine their British guests. For their part the Royal Navy officers and attached diplomats were equally intent on demonstrating their social graces and brought with them their wives, their sweethearts, and several of Malta’s most renowned beauties.

Having cemented herself, in the months since her arrival, as the talk of Valletta, the Madame de Ville-Chanceuse was one of the first to receive an invitation. Flattered by the attention and excited to be aboard a ship again—even if the crossing to Sicily was only a matter of days—Adelaide had packed immediately.

She was announced in the thousand-year-old court in her pale blue dress, still the pride of her collection and only worn for special occasions, accentuated by ribbons, bands, and glittering lace. Her diamond necklace blazed in the candlelight of the arcade, outshining the silver bracelet Commander Brenton had gifted her before their departure.

He was seated further down the impossibly long banquet table, among several coalition soldiers, nearly out of sight. Adelaide occasionally leaned around in her chair to catch a glimpse of his scarlet coat or listen for his stirring voice, wondering if they’d ever be able to steal some time alone.

For the moment, though, she was trapped between a Royal Navy officer and a sulking Sicilian dignitary. They were talking over her in Italian, leaving her alone to fidget with her dress. She remembered Zephyra telling her it was designed to accentuate the bust, but she didn’t remember it making her look quite so ample when she last tried it on.

She was furtively trying to loosen the binding when the officer suddenly switched to English and raised his glass to her. “You came over aboard Sybaris, did you not?” She nodded, abandoning the cincture. “Her captain is a good friend. And I’m told he employs an excellent personal cook.”

“It was a very pleasant voyage,” she agreed, “though very short. But every night he hosted the passengers and officers for a dinner in the great cabin, each better than the last. It was splendid…very different from the last time I sailed.”

“Indeed?” He reached to refill her glass. “What ship was that?”

Tryphena. I believe she is what you call a ‘frigate.’ Captain—”

He laughed. “Bad Luck Ben! Yes, probably as different an experience as you can get. That poor man trying to host captain’s dinners with hardtack and peas, haha. Madame, I’m glad you were finally able to taste the offerings of a well-found Royal Navy ship of the line. Treating our guests well is a point of pride in the service.” He proposed a toast to the service and they drank it down. “Maybe poor Captain Muir will catch himself a prize or two in the Adriatic this year and finally be able to afford some better provisions.”

At the mention of the Adriatic a few nearby gentlemen turned and they all quickly fell into a heated discussion of the situation there. Things were growing dire, evidently, with the damned French now controlling the Illyrian coast, with the Venetian shipyards turning out terrifying new ships, with the little British squadron there sorely outgunned. Those frigates were all that stood between Napoleon and the east, posited the officer.

With their attentions back on the war, Adelaide’s attention returned to the food. The hall echoed with the hurried footsteps of a hundred diligent servers, revealing every new course with perfect synchronicity and regal flair. As each course wore on, they watched their guests with practiced eyes, removing any plate the moment it found itself emptied and replacing it with another.

Adelaide had not been given the evening’s menu and had paced herself poorly. It did not help that, having grown accustomed to Valletta’s late suuppers, she had enjoyed a particularly large lunch to keep her stomach from complaining.

She had barely slept off that meal before Zephyra had woken her for the ball. Fortunately the antipasti had awakened her appetite again and she’d outdone herself on caponata while the dignitaries were giving their endless speeches. Realizing her error, she tried not to finish the soup that followed, but there was concerningly little broth left in the bowl when it was finally removed.

She needn’t have worried. The swordfish that now appeared proved so delectable that she would have eaten the whole plate no matter how much soup preceded it. It arrived as a large steak on a bed of fine Sicilian tomatoes, capers, nuts, and plenty of olives. The dish met with enthusiastic and audible approval from the whole table, though Adelaide was the only one on her end to clean her platter.

There was a short break after the fish, which was all too welcome. Adelaide’s neighbors presumably continued their conversation, but she heard little of it, half dozing in her increasingly uncomfortable chair. She wriggled and shifted, searching for a more comfortable position, and was obliged to adjust her dress several times. It seemed much more snug than she remembered.

All discomfort was temporarily forgotten as the main course finally appeared: the famous pasta alla Norma, accompanied by a hearty slab of farsu magru. Adelaide cut open the meat roll and moaned with delight as the aromas of bacon, ham, beef, cheese, garlic, and a heady mix of herbs reached her.

She was short of breath by the time the empty plate was taken away, her vision drifting too much to notice that most of her neighbors had barely managed a third of their own. Orchestral music floated through the hall: another pause before the appearance of dessert.

She slipped a hand beneath the table and massaged her stomach. The other hand reached for her wine.

The officer beside her suddenly turned for her opinion on the mood in Marseille and Toulon. She nearly panicked, but a more familiar and welcome voice interrupted them, asking pardon.

Commander Brenton had appeared. Adelaide flushed with relief and stifled a belch. He was particularly gorgeous tonight, resplendent in his full dress uniform and radiant in the candlelight. Adelaide’s breath came even shorter and a shamelessly amorous smile spread across her face.

“Madame, may I beg you to honor me with a dance?” Brenton inquired, extending his hand.

Adelaide instantly pushed her chair back and leapt to her feet. She turned to take his hand, arched her back in a sensuous, stately pose, and heard a horrible tearing noise.

She saw his eyes gaze down and widen. She heard a chorus of scandalized gasps from the table behind her. She felt the sudden, cool air on skin that should have been covered.
 

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(7, continued)


“I’ve been trying to warn you, dear,” said Mrs. Torcia, with a little too much vindication. “You picked up a very, very inappropriate appetite from those sailors. You can’t keep on as you have without consequences.”

Adelaide looked up from her bath, acknowledging her with a remorseful nod. Beneath the bubbling surface, she ran the soap over her thigh. How had she not noticed how pliable, how supple the flesh there had become?

“You must remember…sailors’ rations are of unnatural quantity because an unnatural quantity of exertion is expected of them every day.” She sat beside the wash-basin and laid a comforting hand on Adelaide’s shoulder. “Their preposterous diet is hardly fit for men ashore, much less for a woman of your noble station, for whom manly exertion is unbecoming.”

“I admit I’ve…given in to some temptations,” Adelaide grumbled. “But everyone has been so kind and so welcoming and so, so generous since I…left France. I feel like I should honor their—your—hospitality.”

Mrs. Torcia shook her head. “It’s possible to do so with temperance and moderation. You can compliment a cook without giving in to vile gluttony, dear. You must act with grace at all times. And that…that was not grace.”

She cocked her head at the pale blue dress, draped over a nearby chair. The long tear along its backside hung open as an eternal reminder.

“I know you’re young,” she continued, standing, “and I imagine you’ve survived quite an ordeal, escaping your country. But did you leave your manners in Ville-Chanceuse?”

Adelaide paled.

The older woman clucked her tongue and picked up the ruined dress. “I’ll have this repaired and adjusted. Zephyra, take it into town in the morning.”

“Of course, Mrs. Torcia,” said the maid.

“Honestly, dear,” she sighed, turning back to Adelaide, “I am happy to host you and support you in all you need until you can find your footing and be restored to your estate. But I did not expect to have to teach you how to behave like a lady. I will repair your dress, but it will be up to you to repair your image.”

She turned and strutted out of the chamber. A muttered oath echoed from the bedroom, concluding with “showing all of Sicily your underthings, good heavens…all our reputations at stake…”

Adelaide took a long breath and pushed herself up. Standing in the basin, she turned with a gulp and examined the long mirror across the room.

At least twelve stone of woman looked back at her, hardly fat, surely, but undeniably more fulsome than the lithe figure who had arrived in Malta four months earlier. She was herself in every way, but thicker, softer, and now round in new places.

Her thighs had widened, squeezing against one another. Her stomach pushed gently out from her midsection, reaching a faint point below her navel and sloping back toward her groin. Adelaide placed a hand on the slope, tracing it upward and watching the plush skin rise and fall.

She stared a while, eventually noticing that Zephyra had begun to stare, too.

“It’s true,” Adelaide sighed. “I’ve gotten pudgy.”

Zephyra blinked as though waking. She seized a towel and brought it over. “Barely. It’s only a few stone. It can happen to anyone…look at me.”

In a show of solidarity, she pulled her maid’s dress taut to show off her own portly belly. Adelaide allowed herself a smile.

“You’ve been eating very, very well,” she continued, toweling Adelaide. “Sometimes that’s gonna show. There’s no shame in it.”

“There was plenty of shame in the commander’s face. What if he refuses to ever see me again, now that he’s seen that?”

Zephyra helped her out of the basin. “I’m pretty sure he’s seen your skin before tonight, Addie. I’ve seen the way you blush after your garden rendezvouses. But in front of the elites…sometimes appearances can suddenly mean a lot more.”

“Do you think he’ll spurn me?”

“Not him. That man is absolutely smitten with you. He was still calling your name while we rushed you out of there, vowing vengeance on whatever dressmaker so betrayed you…” She wrapped a robe over Adelaide’s shoulders and led her back to the bedroom. “But maybe we give it some time. And play the right part for a while, until you’re…secure.”

Adelaide slouched onto the bed. “What do you mean?”

Zephyra shrugged. “Go easy on the meals for a little while. Try to look like what they expect a socialite to look like. If you can stay restrained long enough to lure that pretty young man into marrying you, then you’re free. Nobody bats an eye when a new bride plumps up.”

“Wait, but…marry?”

“Of course. Really, Adelaide, it’s your best option, isn’t it? If you marry an Englishman…a wealthy, celebrated soldier like Kenneth Brenton, no less…you’ll be a British subject. Whatever happened in France, whatever you were back there, it suddenly won’t matter. His family’s rich enough they’ll never care about your fake lost estates.”

Adelaide furrowed her brow. She sat back against the cushions, letting the robe flap open, her stomach creasing faintly into a delicate pair of rolls.
 

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Chapter 8


July, 1810 - Valletta


Oppressive heat, lingering long into the Mediterranean evening, kept the guests of the commissioner’s dinner indoors. The last amber rays of the sunset filled the manor’s windows with yet more steamy warmth.

As dinner concluded, Valletta’s elite men had adjourned to a lounge in the east wing to smoke cigars and impress one another with news from the war and opinions on the precarious state of the outgunned Adriatic squadron. Valletta’s elite women had moved to a reading room in the west, where they fell into gossip with an almost dutiful immediacy.

“Did you see that dress on the admiral’s wife this morning?” clucked Mrs. Torcia, aghast. It had been scandalous enough that the admiral had married such a young strumpet. “The neckline plunged nearly to her navel. Shocking, I say. Who could she be trying to impress? Is there anyone in Malta she’s not yet tried to seduce?”

A woman in red perked up. “There is now. That painter has come back. The American.”

“Dear me,” cried another guest. “You don’t mean Mr. Allen?”

“The very same. He was aboard the packet that came in this afternoon. They had to lower him in a bosun’s chair…I watched the whole process in horror.”

“That rake.” She turned up her nose. “Why come back here? Perhaps he’s worn out his welcome in London again and hopes enough of us have forgotten him by now.”

Another woman leaned in. “He’s not brought that shameful harem with him, has he? I was just thinking that moral standards had finally begun to improve on our little island.”

“He looked to be alone,” the woman in red recalled, “but no doubt he intends to surround himself with some new menagerie of indulgent wastrels.”

“I wonder where he’ll stay.”

“I can tell you he won’t be lodging at the Cirene this time,” declared Mrs. Torcia, standing with indignation. “As payment for his last little visit he left us an enormous painting so decadent and lewd that I nearly refused. ‘Wet drapery,’ forsooth. I’ll be glad to tell him his favorite room is unavailable, given to the much lovelier and infinitely more respectable Madame de Ville-Chanceuse.”

Realizing she’d been mentioned, Adelaide stirred and gave her a gracious smile. “You mean the painting of the philosopher’s lesson? Above the bed?”

“The very same. Please tell me if it offends you. Mr. Torcia begs me to leave it up, but I will promptly take any excuse to remove it from sight.”

“What? No, not at all. I thought it seemed very…tasteful.” The other women didn’t seem pleased with this opinion and she scrambled to recover. “Just last week Kenneth—uh, Commander Brenton—and I were looking at it together and he was moved enough to recite a most beautiful poem.”

This was worse. Now they were all staring. The woman in red tut-tutted her and whispered something to her neighbor.

Adelaide grimaced. She’d seen the woman in red sneaking out of last month’s gala with a married man, leaving her own husband wandering cluelessly about the dance floor. But apparently the separation of what could be done in private and what could be mentioned in public was still very great.

“The commander had come upstairs,” she ventured, her frantic eyes settling on one of the bookshelves, “to deliver me a new selection of books from his private collection. He has been helping me improve my English.”

It was partly true, if only because it was much easier to guide his zealous love-making in words he readily understood. The commander had proven more earnest than experienced.

“I was going to compliment you: you seem much more fluent of late.”

“I heard the commander is an amateur poet,” chimed the woman in red. “Is he any good? These soldiers often have no sense of art.”

Adelaide blushed. “I wouldn’t say I know English enough to judge a poem. But when he reads them aloud…it feels like art to me.” Indeed, his lovely voice could induce many feelings in her.

The women cooed. “How lucky you are.”

Having found no scandal worth pursuing, they turned their attentions back to other town rumors—whom did Mrs. Torcia suspect was pregnant?—and Adelaide found herself free from their eyes.

She finally relaxed the straining muscles of her midsection, allowing her stomach to pooch back out, and studied her companions with frustration. Some of the older, married women were themselves quite thick about the middle, but in a matronly way that no one seemed to deride. The bachelorettes, however, were ubiquitously lithe and enjoyed talking loudly and endlessly of the efforts required to remain so.

Even after managing to lose ten of her newly-accumulated pounds, Adelaide was still the heaviest of the young ladies in attendance. Evidently they had embraced the fashion of the revolution, but never the philosophy.

The ten pounds had been an agony to remove and there had so far been no tangible reward for her restraint. Visually, little had changed, though she’d updated her wardrobe to accentuate a more curvaceous frame.

She could hardly see the point, beyond avoiding any more major public embarrassments. Brenton, once she came out of her self-imposed hiding, proved to be as enraptured with her as ever. Adelaide and her diamonds continued to draw amazed, lustful eyes whenever she was announced to a room.

But the temperance was misery. This evening she had watched platters of bragioli and timpana pass by at dinner, taunting her while she contained herself to smell helpings of aubergine and kawlata. The glass of carob julep now in her hand was a delicious, inviting nectar and it was taking all her remaining power to drink it as slowly as possible. Her stomach whined, again, and she glanced around to see if anyone had heard.

Her eyes landed on a sight outside. Squinting through the window she saw a small party of sailors, making their ungainly way home from the taverns, singing.

Zephyra hung on the arms of two burly seamen, almost too inebriated to walk, dress hanging off her plump bosom. The grin on her face showed more bliss than the refined women in their stuffy reading room would ever know.

Adelaide pursed her lips, finished her drink, and stood.

The others looked up. “Pardonnez-moi,” she said, automatically, and strode out of the room.

She marched up the hallway, rounded a corner, and caught herself just in time to avoid colliding with a scarlet coat.

“Adelaide!” gasped Brenton, eyes full of joy.

“Kenneth!” she breathed, her face brightening. She embraced him, but remembered her audience and composed herself.

“I was just on my way to find you, darling. You and I, you remember, we had been talking of art last week and I was positively enamored with the idea of someday having your portrait done…that I may carry my muse with me at all times, wherever I go, ready to inspire…”

She sputtered, smoothing her dress. “Portrait? Yes, oh, of course. I remember.”

“Darling, we are in luck.” He stepped aside and ushered forward a heavyset, bearded man with a flashing smile and a hungry eye. “Madame de Ville-Chanceuse, allow me to introduce Mr. Hermes Allen, the famous painter.”

The man bent low and kissed Adelaide’s hand. She glanced behind her to see if the women had heard.

“The commander has asked,” he explained, in his strange American intonation, “if I might capture your visage on canvas. I protested at first, as I don’t typically paint portraits, but I see now that it would be the easiest I have ever done.”

Adelaide flushed. “Oh! Why is that, sir?”

She caught his eyes darting down, for a moment, to her stomach. He smiled. “Because, my dear, you are already a work of art.”
 

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Chapter 9


August, 1810


Turned away by Valletta’s more upstanding landowners, Hermes Allen eventually established himself at a large old house in Pieta. Rumors soon swirled about him commandeering the entire cellar for use as a studio. Reports about the guests he entertained at all hours of the night excited comment and there was plenty of speculation over the crates and covered objects he received from foreign couriers.

Adelaide thus made sure to arrive around midday, wearing her most modest dress, with every possible appearance of propriety. Her arms were completely covered and her jacket’s lace wound all the way to her neck. She chose to walk the distance to Marsamxett Harbor, encouraged to look well-exercised for her artistic debut.

These attempts to appear both chaste and lively proved to be trouble under the summer sun. By the time she reached the old house she was a sodden, panting mess, her face purple and her hair entirely astray.

Fortunately the painter was even less presentable. He greeted her at the door himself, wearing only paint-spattered breeches and a silk robe. The robe was untied and hung open, showing off a pot-belly that made Adelaide tighten her stomach.

“Madame!” he gasped with a jovial smile. “Please don’t tell me you came all this way on foot.”

She nodded, unable to produce any real words.

“Come in, come in at once out of that sweltering heat. There, that’s shut. Follow me…I’ve set up shop downstairs, where you’ll find the temperatures much more agreeable.”

He led her behind the manor’s grand staircase to a servant’s door and a narrow spiral of steps. Cool cellar air reached Adelaide immediately and she filled her lungs. By the time they’d reached the bottom, she was refreshed enough to greet him properly.

“And I’m sorry if I kept you waiting,” she added, attempting to tame her hair. “I expected to walk a little faster. I’ve been trying to take more exercise lately, but maybe not enough.”

“Not at all. I slept longer than I planned anyway, so we have encountered each other with serendipitous synchronicity. Let me get you a drink. Something chilled.”

While he disappeared into a side room, Adelaide toured his workshop.

Mr. Allen was not a tidy housekeeper. Unused canvases and sketches littered the dank floor, along with discarded plates, bottles, and clothing; both men’s and women’s. Several finished paintings hung on the walls and more unfinished on easels scattered throughout the room.

There were landscapes, more scenes of nudity and debauchery from antiquity, still-life studies of extravagant meals, and a handful of portraits, including one of the woman in red who had so vocally decried the painter’s return.

Adelaide continued to the far end of the room. Near a makeshift bed Allen had hung a collection of much less tasteful nudes that would have sent Mrs. Torcia shrieking from the house: passionate, erotic displays involving both sexes in a wide variety of liaisons. Above the headboard hung another, larger frame, but it was covered with a muslin shroud.

“You don’t seem as shocked by the bacchanalia series as some of my other patrons,” Allen mused, returning. He handed her a chilled mug. “When I first displayed this one, my Cytherian orgy, I was informed that I would never again be welcome in the Bavarian court.”

She gratefully sipped her drink: a staggeringly smooth golden beer. The flush of the heat outside disappeared. “But it’s such a lovely image. I can feel their…excitement. Their joy in being with one another.”

“Thank you, my dear. I wish the dukes and duchesses shared your tastes. Oh, but speaking of taste…” He gestured her toward a chair and turned to a nearby table. A serving tray had appeared with the beer. “It being midday and you having presumably worked up quite an appetite on your walk over, I thought I might share some of my treats.”

“Oh, I…”

“My cook acquired a variety of local recipes from our last ports of call, as it were. I have asked him to prepare a few for us today.”

Adelaide couldn’t see around his bulk, but whatever he was moving from dish to plate managed to sound appetizing already. “Was that in England? Mrs. Torcia said you had been in London before here.”

“Oh, that was sometime last year. But they, too, had suggested I depart. I was sorry to go, but it did offer the opportunity to tour several of the German states. After Schönbrunn there was a brief period of peace in which to see many of their wonders. Behold…”

He passed her a plate of their wonders. Adelaide’s mind was too aswim with the fatigue of her walk, Mrs. Torcia’s admonishing reminders about her figure, and the unabating hunger in her stomach to attend to his loquacious descriptions, but the phrases “Bavarian Cream” and “Emperor’s Mess” made it through and were more than enough to wear down any restraint.

“Delectable, no?” he asked, watching her with satisfaction. “I often miss Maryland, I admit, but I would not dare miss the chance to have tasted all the flavors of Europe and beyond.”

“I wish,” she ventured, pausing to wipe a dribble of cream, “I possessed…still possessed the means to travel so. You’re very lucky to see so many places and…and taste so many…” She never finished the sentence. While still searching for the words her mouth found a bite of cake instead.

“I have been fortunate. It’s true. My father ran a large shipping company in Baltimore and made me a partial owner. I have no head for commerce, but it allows me to travel as I please. There are so many things to see.” He paced over to one of the empty easels. “And taste.”

“Mm,” she agreed, reaching for another taste.

“Now, as for your portrait, my dear…I indulge, ha ha, my artistic tastes by adding fanciful backdrops behind my subjects. Such a beautiful woman deserves something better behind her than this murky cellar wall. Do you have any scenes in mind?”

“Scenes?”

“Where shall I depict you? Doing what? Being whom?” He laid out a long paper for sketching.

Adelaide frowned between bites, considering. It was hard to think of anything beyond the treats and the beer; there should still have been more beer left in the mug than there was. She straightened. “My…estate,” she ventured. “My estates back home. The fertile valley with its overflowing orchards and cottages with…oh, with pies on the windowsills. And a blooming chateau full of music and dancing and…dinners…” She took a shaky breath. “…fêtes…magnifiques…”

Allen cast her a suspicious eye, but grinned. “Most of the ladies I paint prefer scenes from places they don’t see every day…tales from exotic antiquity. It seems some mark of status.”

“Oh! Well, if it would impress Mrs. Torcia and her friends, we can certainly do that.”

“Are there any that you find alluring? Medea? Proserpine? Calypso on her island?”

Adelaide managed a polite smile, but the lack of recognition was clear. Brenton had read her poetry with some of those names, but her mind had typically been on other, more indulgent thoughts.

“Perhaps Siduri, in her tavern by the edge of the sea?

“She sounds very lovely.” She reached for another morsel to fill the increasingly overbearing lull, but the plate proved empty.

Allen eyed her. “You are wearing a mask, my dear.”

Adelaide instinctively reached to her face.

“Now, never fret. All my patrons are gossips, but I do not practice the vile habit myself. Neither Mrs. Torcia nor her friends will learn anything from me about your pretense.”

“Oh, sir…”

“I understand entirely. And I support it with all my heart. Take the opportunity to live as you wish to live.” He tapped his charcoal to the paper. “Indulge as you wish to indulge. I would do the same. I have done the same, in my own way. Sometimes I offend those around me and make enemies of those whose support I require, but I pursue my desire.”

She gazed down. “I wish it were easier.”

“Thus the mask. I respect the need for it.” He paused his sketch. “My dear, I will happily paint your mask for them. But I will leave it to you to decide who hides beneath it. Let me fetch you another cooling libation and another selection of treats, so that you may sit in comfort and contentment you crave while I portray you in the discomfort and deprivation they demand.”

“And Mrs. Torcia…I suppose if I eat my fill here, I’ll seem famished at supper. She will be so pleased.”

“A happy arrangement. We may take many days of sitting to perfect your portrait. Weeks, even. And she need never be the wiser.”
 

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Chapter 10


November, 1810


“Do you really have to leave? Are you sure?”

Brenton gave her an apologetic smile. “Darling, you know I would never choose to miss even the faintest opportunity to march you about the dance floor and be seen with Valletta’s most beautiful woman upon my arm.”

Adelaide squeezed the muscular arm in question. He pulled her close under the awning, allowing a stream of servants to bustle past with their dinner’s second course.

“Kenneth, you’ve had to do too much lately,” she lamented, running a hand through his golden hair. “The general’s illness is wearing on you. You make yourself smile, but I see the shadows under your eyes. Stay, I beg you. You need the rest…and the thrill.”

He grimaced. “You know I want nothing more. But there’s been a break-in at the spirit room in the barracks. A cooler head is needed immediately.”

Adelaide feigned a look of horror, but a large part of her envied the drunken troublemakers.

“Dine and dance without me tonight, darling. I will call on you tomorrow afternoon—that is a promise—and I will bring those imqaret you like so much…with cream.” He flashed her a conspiratorial grin. “We can tell Mrs. Torcia the box is full of French satires.”

“Satires! Commander, you scoundrel,” she giggled.

“Anything to hear that laugh.” He kissed her. “I will come. I promise. With sweets for my sweet. And you must finally tell me about Ville-Chanceuse, of the chateau…I long to learn more.”

Adelaide paled. “Oh…yes, of course. Be safe, commander.”

He took her hands, kissed her again, and rushed for the door, where his impatient courier waited. Adelaide waited for her heart to settle, checked her hair in a nearby mirror, and returned to the party.

The visiting Spanish delegation had brought a number of celebrated cooks with them and the hall was filled with new, intriguing wafts of spice that awakened the senses. Adelaide’s stomach gave its usual plaintive whine as the latest dish was revealed: cuchifrito with plaintains, billowing with heady steam.

It was a dejected whine, though, sounded only by old habit. After months of imposed privation despite the luxuries at hand, her hunger had finally learned to stop expecting any reward.

She tried to comfort herself with the image of Brenton’s sly grin, an unusually forward expression from such a decorous man, but the memory only further aroused her appetite.

Fidgeting with her wine glass, she looked up and down the table for distraction. The other guests had all found conversational partners, apparently ignorant of Adelaide’s return.

There was Mr. Torcia, telling some officers a ribald joke. Mrs. Torcia was absent, kept home by illness. There was the duplicitous woman in red, throwing herself at a freshly married local landowner. There was the admiral’s infamous young wife, very deliberately forgetting to replace a fallen dress strap and making eyes at a visiting Spaniard.

And there was Hermes Allen, greedily devouring his meal, pointing out its finer qualities to his neighbors and pausing only for a quaff of sangria or a belly-quaking laugh.

It was a prodigious, infectious laugh that set everyone around him roaring. Adelaide, at the far end of the table, could not help but smile when she heard it.

She finished her dish before she realized what was happening. A forgotten warmth spread through her midsection and she glanced around to see if anyone was looking. She saw no judging eyes, but did notice that Brenton’s seat beside her, though now empty, had been served with his plate.

“I escaped,” she decided, mouth watering and chest heaving with desire.

With all the deftness of an accomplished thief she surreptitiously switched her empty plate with Brenton’s. Another glance showed that no one had noticed the motion and, filled with criminal thrill, she attacked it in heaping forkfuls.

Adelaide was out of practice, but her renewed enthusiasm made up for any lack of preparation. Her stomach complained initially at the speed but rejoiced at the quantity and as she dropped her utensils to the emptied plate she basked in an overdue satisfaction.

As the server removed both plates, Adelaide peered up the table. She found Allen staring back, eyebrow cocked. A knowing grin dimpled his cheeks.

Feeling bold, Adelaide held up a pair of fingers and pantomimed fulsome discomfort.

Allen replied with three fingers of his own and a wink.

Adelaide straightened. She eyed him for a moment. The guest chef announced his third course, a dish centered around fried pork-belly that elicited a hearty applause from the guests.

She reached for Brenton’s untouched wine-glass. Raising it to Allen, she tipped her head back and slowly gulped it down, shuddering but managing to finish it in one go.

Setting it down with a wince, she looked up and down the table. The arrival of the chicarrones had taken the guests’ undivided attention and no one had noticed Adelaide’s activities, thankfully, except Allen, who gazed back at her with lusty approval.

 

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