"Are you out of your mind, Eric? A woman?"
First mate Benjamin Hayes crossed his huge arms across his chest. He stared hard at his captain and friend. The fact that he had used Englehorn's first name meant Ben was speaking to the other man in the capacity of a friend, not as first mate. Ben could not imagine as the captain of the Venture that Eric would ever consider taking on a female passenger.
Eric gave an uncharacteristic shrug. "She asked me for passage."
"Since when do you take on charity cases?"
Ben already knew the answer to that, but decided to leave it alone. He knew damn well when Eric started taking on charity cases, or at least why he did, but reminding Eric would only irritate him and put him even more on the defensive.
"Miss Wright has offered to work on the ship." Eric continued. "I do not consider that charity."
Ben slapped a beefy hand to his forehead. "That makes all the difference. C'mon, Eric. You put a woman in the middle of a crew like the one we got, and they'll tear her to shreds."
Eric's eyes became chips of ice. "Any sailor that even looks at her funny will be keel hauled."
"You talkin' like you've already made up your mind. Thought you were asking for my opinion."
"I am." Eric removed his cap and tossed it across the cabin. "And I'm asking you to tell me why I feel like I have lost my mind!" He suddenly shouted. Eric began pacing back and forth in a jerky line.
Ben barely understood the last part of what Eric had said. The man's accent became as thick as pecan pie when he got upset.
"You have lost your mind. A woman on this ship? It's just beggin' for trouble. Why you lookin' for trouble, man?"
Eric let out a long, slow breath and then he continued, his voice quieter. "She's just lost her father. He was an American Naval officer. He served on the USS Iowa." Eric looked up into Ben's dark eyes.
"You ever engage the Iowa?"
Ben knew the answer when Eric frowned.
Ben shook his head. He recognized a lost cause when he saw one. Eric wasn't that complicated of a man, except when it came to the War. The man either had a strange sense of duty, or the hugest conscience ever known to mankind. Eric felt that he was personally responsible for his country's actions during The War. Of course that was purely ridiculous, but what Eric Englehorn set his mind to, Ben had learned over the years they had been together, was as immovable as the Rock of Gibraltar.
"You followed orders." Ben lowered his voice. "Whose fault is it anyway, the gun or the finger on the trigger?" He had been through it in his own mind dozens of times before. It was the only way to wake up everyday and not be barking mad.
The things he had seen other men do. The things he had done. The things he had contemplated doing. Ben shook his head slowly. "We were both soldiers. We were both guns."
A familiar strained expression crossed Eric's face. "So you have said before."
The steamer sighed up and down against its moorings. Ben could hear the shouts of the longshoremen on the docks and the pulsing screams of the wheeling gulls. A breeze wafted into the map room bringing with it the familiar sharp smells of tar, metal, and water.
"You want my opinion? Well here it is: I don't want a woman on board."
Before Eric could respond, a sailor knocked on the map room's door jam. He poked his grizzled head into the room. "Cap'n, sir. There's a woman down on the dock askin' permission to board. Name's Miss Wright. What do ya want me to do with her?"
Without looking at Ben, Eric gave the sailor a curt nod. "Bring her up here, Mason."
Annoyance flashed through Ben. He leaned forward and clutched the side of the map room's table. Ben lowered his voice. "What the hell is going on?"
Eric had retrieved his captain's cap and was adjusting it back on his head. He gathered up a few charts and slipped them underneath his arm.
"I need to take care of a few things." He moved toward the door.
Ben caught him by the arm. "Where you goin'? This girl is on her way up here. You expect me to talk to her all by myself?"
"Why do you think I invited her to the Venture?"
"She must be a real looker."
The picture was becoming clear, and Ben was mildly disgusted with what he saw. He had known Eric for a long time and he was no cake-eater.
"I want you to meet her. I've got to go. Tell me what you decide."
Ben put his hands on his hips. "You're kidding me."
Ignoring Ben's comment, Eric turned away and then walked through the door. The conversation was over. Ben heard footsteps outside of the wheelhouse, and then a quick murmured conversation. Steeling himself, but not really knowing why, Ben turned to meet the woman who stood outside the map room. He stepped out from behind the table and stood akimbo and waited for her to enter the room.
Ben wasn't quite sure who he had expected to come through that door, but it was not the tall, dark-headed woman that pulled the door open and strode into the room. Instead of trepidation or even fear-which quite frankly he had expected, there was a look of boldness on her face. She moved forward with purpose extended her hand.
"You must be Mr. Hayes. The captain has told me a lot about you. My name is Kendra Wright."
With hand still extended, she continued. "My father served in the U.S. Navy. I understand the workings of the power structure on a ship. The captain is the head of the ship, but the first mate is the brain, if you get my meaning. I know it's not Eric…" She blushed slightly, "…it's not the Captain that I need to convince, but you. I am here to ask permission for passage to England. I will work, as I have no money. I can cook, clean, and I have some nursing skills. I also have some rudimentary navigation skills, and I know my way around a ship."
Her hand stayed unwavering in the air. He glanced from her hand to her face and then back to her hand again which remained solidly in the air. Ben wondered just how long she would leave it there. Suppressing a grin, he could tell by the tilt of her chin and firmness of her jaw, that the hand would stay right where it was for three hours if need be. Ben now knew why Eric had considered her request; this was as a woman to be reckoned with. Here was no shrinking violet, but still, put a female on the decks of the Venture for more than an hour, and all hell would break loose. There was no question in Ben's mind.
"You understand the Venture has a crew of a bunch of superstitious old sea dogs who won't like it one bit that there is a woman on board." Ben's hands now hung at his hips.
"I'm willing to take that chance."
"You're askin' me to take that chance. I'm in charge of discipline, not you."
"That's why I'm here, to ask you." Miss Wright took a small step forward.
Ben crossed his arms over his chest. "I don't like it."
"I appreciate your honesty, but please hear me out." She took a deep breath and lowered her hand, but not completely. "My father has recently passed away."
"The captain told me that. My condolences."
She seemed to brush his words away. "My aunt who has control over my father's estate found out about my friendship with Captain Englehorn, and has refused to give me any of the money my father meant for me to have. She lost her only son in the War. She loathes Germans." The last sentence was delivered with thick contempt. "I am quite sure Eric is not personally responsible for Thomas's death."
She straightened a bit and hooked her dark hair behind her ear. "I have nowhere to go. The sea is familiar to me and it is where I wish to be. I'll work hard."
"You know, I believe you, but that ain't the problem. These are hard men. You aren't exactly ugly. That'll cause problems, I guarantee that. There is no getting' around that fact."
"If the situation becomes awkward, then you can leave me in England. I have a few distant cousins on my mother's side that live in Bristol."
"The situation will get awkward the second the crew sees you coming on board with a suitcase." Ben dropped his arms to his sides and walked around the table.
"Then I'll bring a duffel bag."
Ben placed his large hands on the table and leaned over to Miss Wright's eye level. "If you know so much about life on a ship, then you know we can't spend all of our time protecting you from lovesick sailors. And some of them ain't lovesick. Some of them are just mean and nasty."
"I have had to take care of myself for a long time, even before my father died. I am not defenseless by any means."
Ben covered his laughter with a gruff cough. What did she have, a Tommy Gun in her duffel bag? "Miss Wright, by the looks of you, I am guessin' your father was an officer. You've gotta know that a sailor would rather drink ten gallons of bilge than bother with an officer's daughter, but the problem is, you're father ain't here."
"If I have to, I will stay in my cabin."
"You'll have to come out some time. Which reminds me, we don't have no ladies rooms on this ship."
She waved her hand dismissively. "I've taken care of my business in many a WC, Mr. Hayes." Then she took a step forward. The skin around her green eyes tightened. "I'm asking for two weeks, that's all."
Ben had to admit that the woman had a good point. It took maybe a day shy of two weeks to get to Southampton. What could happen in two weeks? Plenty, but nothing fatal, Ben supposed. But if something crazy did happen, it was seventy-five miles to Bristol. How was she going to go that far with no money and only 'distant' relatives to help?
"That ain't my concern." He murmured.
"Excuse me, is that your answer?" Miss Wright said with some agitation. "Eric led me to believe…"
Ben grimaced. "That I'm some pushover?"
Miss Wright blushed. "No. The captain led me to believe quite the opposite, but that you had a good heart."
Ben glowered at her, but it was no use. He couldn't deny it. He was impressed. She had moxie, that was for certain, and he could respect that. He almost believed she could take care of herself. She'd kept up with him and had answered every one of his questions without being intimidated or resorting to wheedling or turning on her feminine wiles-until the end, that is, when she sensed he was weakening.
Eric owes me one. A damn big one.
Ben extended his hand over the table and grasped hers. Her tanned hand was slender, but her handshake was firm.