The day of the ball dawned cold and clear. Wendy was awake before dawn, ashamed of herself for being so impatient. 'Nothing is going to change,' she reminded herself firmly. However her traitorous heart was not easily subdued. A fluttering feeling in the pit of her stomach insisted that after today her life would never be the same.
She spent the morning engaged in her normal leisure pursuits, but her sewing and books could not distract her today. When her mother came to supervise her bathing and cosmetic preparations, Wendy was grateful for the once-hated rituals. The near-scientific process of making certain that her hair was pinned up in the most becoming style was at least diverting.
At first she felt awkward in the heavy blue silk and lace gown. It had been many years since she'd worn anything so formal. She fidgeted slightly, quelling her movements under her mother's disapproving eye. Standing up straighter, she waited for the final judgment.
Mrs. Darling examined her daughter carefully, slowly circling her to take in Wendy's appearance from all sides. At last, she halted in front of her daughter and pronounced, "No one shall ever guess your age."
Wendy supposed that was all the praise she would receive from her mother. Taking one last look at herself in her mirror, she left her bedroom and went to join her father in the hallway below.
As Wendy descended the stairs, Mr. Darling looked up and caught his breath. At his daughter's curious look, he cleared his throat. "You look... very fetching, dear."
"Thank you, Father," Wendy murmured politely, reaching for her wrap. As she did so, her father caught her arm.
Mr. Darling looked around carefully and then leaned close to Wendy. Into her ear, he whispered, "You have never been aware of how very pretty you are. For many years, you have been the true beauty of this family, and tonight, you look exquisite."
He straightened then, adjusting his tie as his wife came downstairs to join them. Wendy could only stammer for a few moments, before managing to repeat, "Thank you, Father."
Mrs. Darling looked over the pair of them critically, before nodding her head in approval. At that signal, the family left their home for the waiting coach that would take them to the ball. Once inside, Mrs. Darling informed Wendy, "Remember, dear, life at sea can be very difficult."
Wendy nodded, mystified.
"It can lead to certain... ailments," Mrs. Darling continued delicately. "I trust that you will remember your manners and not surrender to one of your daydreams."
Wendy leaned forward, hoping that she was about to learn something new about the Phoenix's crew. Try as she might, over the past two weeks she'd been unable to learn anything beyond the fact that they had arrived in London. Any mention of their appearance or behaviors had been kept from her ears. Her parents had not discussed the matter within her hearing; John had been as curious as she, and Michael was out of the city on business and therefore, missing the entire thing. Beyond that group, Wendy had no other means of gathering information. She was nearly wild with curiosity, hoping to learn some detail of the strange, twenty-year absence.
Her mother nodded slightly, confident that her message had been understood, and leaned back, clearly finished with the conversation. Wendy slumped against her seat in frustration, longing to know what her mother was talking about, but knowing better than to be thought rude by asking. She bit her lip, restraining herself. 'I will see for myself soon enough,' she thought firmly.
She was to be disappointed when she arrived at the ball. The captain and crew of the Phoenix were nowhere in sight, only a sea of well-dressed young women, all pulling themselves to attention at any movement near the entranceway. Mr. Darling steered her through the room, introducing her to a number of his bank associates and their daughters. Wendy held her head high, glancing to the sides occasionally to see if anyone was laughing at her. To her surprise, all attention was focused on making certain that the young ladies were prepared to meet the ship's crew, leaving none for the spinster who was joining their ranks.
Wendy was deep in conversation with Mr. Applegate, a friend of her father's who was familiar with Jules Verne, when a hush fell over the room. Slowly she drew in her breath and released it, then turned to face the mysterious crew of the Phoenix.
To a man, they were lean with dark tans. Their impeccable blue uniforms were modestly cut, merely hinting at the strength underneath. Wendy stared as covertly as she could, a bit disappointed. She wasn't sure what she'd been expecting, but it seemed wrong that they looked so unassuming. There should be some mark on them that signaled that they'd been through grand adventures. Instead, they looked like average, middle-aged seamen. She sighed softly, not willing to give up all hope. Her eyes darted from one man to the next, searching out the one that would stand apart. Where was the captain?
A flurry of whispers drew her gaze to her right, where, in a group of people, she caught sight of a man who looked little like her imaginings, but was devastatingly attractive despite that. The captain was tall and muscular, but with long black hair tied back into a ponytail and arctic eyes. Wendy's breath caught as she looked upon the imposing stranger. 'I know you,' she thought. 'I know you, but how?'
The crowd around the captain cleared a bit, giving Wendy a chance to look upon his form for the first time. She trailed her gaze over his broad shoulders and down his arms to his strong hands. Hand. His left arm ended in a strong hand. His right arm... His right arm was capped by a silver hook.
The world swam sickeningly around Wendy, who wavered for a moment, nearly swooning. She sunk her tongue viciously into her tongue, the sharp pain allowing her to focus. 'Wendy Darling you are no simpering girl. You will not faint.' With an effort, she regained control of herself although her thoughts still whirled madly.
'It can't be him. It can't be. How could he be here? I'm imagining things. I'm going mad...'
Hesitantly, she snuck another look over at the captain. No, she would not think of him as Captain Hook. Villains from children's stories did not simply show up at respectable London balls. It was some kind of coincidence. As her mother had reminded her, life at sea was dangerous. Certainly, many men had lost a leg or hand to it before. As for his face... Her visit to Neverland had been seventeen years ago. She could not possibly remember a man's face clearly after so long a time.
Her intellect assuaged, although her heart continued to beat frantically, Wendy returned her attention to Mr. Applegate's monologue on the virtues of Verne over Wells. As he rambled to a halt, Wendy opened her mouth to politely disagree with his assessment of H.G. Wells as a 'no-talent hack whose insane convictions are no doubt fueled by overindulgence in spirits, excuse me Miss Wendy,' when her companion's eyes shifted to focus on something behind her left shoulder.
"Ah, Captain Hembrow, good of you to join us."
Wendy froze, sensing the commanding presence just behind her. Forcing herself to maintain her composure, she turned, curtseying politely to the Phoenix's captain, who bowed low before her.
"Miss Wendy Darling, I believe." His voice was strong and certain, making it clear that he knew exactly who she was. It was a voice accustomed to being obeyed, and Wendy found herself nodding before she thought to be surprised.
"You are indeed correct, Captain," Mr. Applegate beamed. "Miss Wendy, may I have the honor of presenting Captain James Hembrow."
"Captain Hembrow," Wendy murmured in greeting. She glanced up at the captain, his image blurring for a moment with one of a man clad in regal red and gold, the similarity striking. And he knew her name. 'It's not possible...' She would not allow herself to look at the hook.
The captain's lips quirked in a small smile. "I found myself speaking to your father earlier, and troubled him for your name," he replied in answer to the question she had not asked.
His explanation was perfectly appropriate and completely plausible, except... Except. Wendy inclined her head, indicating her understanding, even though she privately withheld her belief.
"Might I request the very great pleasure of dancing with you tonight, Miss Darling?" Wendy flushed at the captain's intense gaze. His impossibly blue eyes were fixed on her alone, and for a moment the chatter of the ballroom seemed to vanish, leaving only the two of them in the room.
"I would be honored to be your partner," she replied, realizing as she spoke that the words were true. Captain James Hembrow was an extraordinary-looking man, and a small, unabashedly feminine part of her was fiercely proud that he had singled her out. She proffered her dance card, allowing the captain to claim any dance he chose.
"You must tell the rest of us your secret, Captain," Mr. Applegate said merrily as the captain perused her dance card, bracing it against his right arm in order to sign his name. "I would that I were half so fortunate as you.
At Wendy's curious look, Mr. Applegate explained, "I remember seeing pictures of our dear captain in the newspapers after the Phoenix was thought lost. Now that I look on him here, he seems to have scarcely aged a day. I wish I could claim the same luck."
The captain smiled wryly as he handed the dance card back to Wendy. "I've yet to see a newspaper photograph that flattered its subject. If I had resembled mine at the time, I would have had cause to wish myself lost. If you'll excuse me."
Without another word, the captain vanished into the crowd, leaving Wendy staring avidly behind him. A silver hook, a familiar face, a man who did not age... All easily explainable on their own, but when combined they painted a far different picture.
Wendy shook her head impatiently. She was behaving like a silly schoolgirl and directly disobeying her mother's command that she not lose herself in daydreams. Captain Hembrow could not possibly be Captain Hook. Even if there was a way for Hook to escape Neverland, he was dead. She had watching him be eaten by the crocodile. No man could survive that.
Thus satisfied, Wendy glanced down at her dance card, flushing a brilliant scarlet when she realized that the captain had claimed not one dance, but three.