St. Augustine, East Florida Colony
The instant Dinah saw the three naval officers, she ducked into the mercantile and hid among the stacks of goods. To her relief, the men, grandly uniformed in indigo wool, gold braid and black bicorn hats, continued up St. Augustine’s St. George Street. Yet as they passed, she could not help but notice the well-formed profile of the captain among them. A strong jaw. High cheekbones. Jet-black hair tied back in a queue. She wondered what color his eyes were.
What was she thinking? She had no interest in seafaring men.
Once they moved on, Dinah continued on her way. After a walk of perhaps a hundred yards beyond the city proper, she saw to her dismay that the officers had passed Fort St. Marks and turned in at the military infirmary, her own objective. She released a long sigh. Perhaps she could slip into the building without notice. If she had not promised to bring this basket of lavender for Dr. Wellsey's patients, she would delay her errand until the officers went elsewhere.
The familiar odors of sickness and lye soap met Dinah's nose even before she opened the hospital's front door. She dismissed her own discomfort. Dr. Wellsey's patients suffered enough with wounds and diseases. Perhaps the fragrance of her flowers would help diminish the unpleasant smells.
In the wide entry room, she brushed her straw hat off and made her way toward the surgeon's office, where she caught a glimpse of the officers in the next chamber. There she saw the captain bent over a man on a cot, one hand resting on the sailor's shoulder. Every nuance of the officer's relaxed posture bespoke sympathy and concern, not the hauteur one might expect. He had removed his hat, revealing a broad, smooth forehead. Now he lifted his gaze toward her, and she ducked behind the office door, her heart pounding. She hoped the captain had not noticed her presence, or if so, had assumed she was a servant.
She placed the basket of lavender on Dr. Wellsey’s desk, then hurried into the entry just as the doctor and his guests emerged from the inner chamber.
"So you see, Captain Moberly, we make every effort—why, Miss Templeton, what a surprise."
Dinah gasped. "Captain Thomas Moberly?"
"Miss Dinah Templeton?"
They spoke at the same time, and the entire company laughed. Relief flooded Dinah. This changed everything regarding these men. Or at least regarding the captain.
He strode across the wide room and lifted her hand to kiss it.
"My dear kinswoman, how delightful to meet you at last." His thick black eyebrows arched and his blue eyes sparkled. Bright blue, like the sky. The fragrance of woodsy shaving balm tickled her nose.
"And I am pleased to meet you, Captain." Dinah curtseyed, then glanced at Dr. Wellsey, who wore an agreeable smile and showed not the slightest surprise. "Why, doctor, did you plan this?"
Dr. Wellsey chuckled. "I fear I cannot claim the credit, though to be sure, it is fortuitous."
"Indeed it is." Thomas released her hand and summoned his officers with an authoritative wave. "Miss Moberly, may I present Mr. Brandon and Mr. Wayland. Gentlemen, this is my sister twice over. My younger brother is married to her cousin, and my sister is married to her brother."
As the two officers stepped forward, Dinah saw in their eyes the usual look of sailors new in port—as if they might devour her on the spot. She tried not to recoil. This was the very thing she'd hoped to avoid by evading these men. At least when the first officer kissed her hand, he had the grace to temper his expression with respect.
"I am honored, Miss Templeton."
"Miss Templeton." The other man, a lieutenant who was younger by far than his companions, gripped her hand a bit too firmly. "Who would have thought to find such beauty in this backward colony?" His breathless speech was etched with an aristocratic British accent.
Seeing a storm brewing on the captain's brow, Dinah gently twisted her hand from the lieutenant's grasp. "How kind of you, sir." She noticed her kinsman’s expression now seemed as protective as her own brother's. How strange that the idea brought on a twinge of disappointment. Strange and foolish. The captain was a seafaring man and as such could never become the object of her romantic interest. Why, she would as soon marry a tavern keeper as a man who always deserted his wife for the sea. No, this man could be her friend, as he was to her brother Jamie, but no more.
"What brings you to St. Augustine?" Dinah gazed again into the captain's warm blue eyes. "Have you brought news that the war is over? That the rebels at last have been defeated?"
The other men responded with condescending chuckles, but Thomas's expression turned grave. "Would that it were so, dear lady. Unfortunately, each time we think we have crushed them, they return like the phoenix." Sorrow flitted across his eyes, but he seemed to blink it away. "To answer your question, my crew and I have been assigned to join the other two frigates now patrolling these waters and to defend St. Augustine and the St. Johns River from invasion by the Spanish fleet and pirates."
Mr. Brandon's brown eyes twinkled. "Thus giving us an opportunity to enjoy a decent roast beef at one of the fine taverns in this fair city. A man wearies of salt pork and weevil-ridden biscuits."
His remark sparked a scheme in Dinah's mind. "If you gentlemen will excuse me, I must take my leave. I hope you will enjoy St. Augustine. It truly is a lovely city, and we appreciate the regiment at Fort Saint Marks and the naval ships in our harbor." She turned to Dr. Wellsey. "Doctor, the lavender is on your desk. Will you see to it?"
He glanced over his shoulder toward his office. "Ah, yes. Thank you, Miss Templeton."
After the appropriate au revoirs, Dinah added, "Until we meet again, Captain Moberly."
She restored her hat to her head and paused to re-tie the ribbons and renew her plan. She must learn where the officers were lodging, then send Thomas an invitation to supper so they could share family news. Perhaps he had information about Jamie, whose merchant ship was always in danger from pirates.
Before she could think of how to word the missive, the captain emerged from the building and stopped her with a light touch on her arm. Looking up from beneath her hat brim to see a smile as gentle as his gaze, she stifled the foolish giddiness threatening her composure. Gracious, he was handsome. But how featherbrained of her to think such things. After all, she had heard from his sister that this gentleman was one and thirty, an entire decade older than her own one and twenty years. Another reason not to make him an object of her interest. And with all those marriages between their families, he was practically her brother. Wasn't he?
"Yes, Captain Moberly?" Could he hear the squeak in her voice?