Hornblower had thought of nothing but the sea during the entire drive back from London to Smallbridge. Even now, in his sitting room with his wife, he was having trouble attending to the preparations for his departure. His mind constantly strayed to the Nonsuch, the Lotus, the Raven, the Moth, the Harvey, and the Clam, all waiting in dock for their repairs to be completed and their full crews to arrive. All his. His command. Hornblower repeated their names to himself, over and over until they became a part of him. He could hardly wait to take his place at their head.
"I'll see what preserves can still be found." Barbara jotted something down in her daybook. "Spring is hardly the best season for preserves and pickles, but I won’t send you off with just biscuits to eat."
"Mhm." Sunny, warm April—what a time to be out to sea! Barbara could send Hornblower away with just the clothes on his back and he shouldn't mind. Well, no, that wasn't true at all. He would be extremely upset. But at this moment, Hornblower felt that it should be true. He stood up to open a window and feel the breeze on his face, blowing in from the east. Smallbridge was a good thirty miles from any port, but Hornblower thought he could taste the tang of salt.
Hornblower stood there for a long while, until he abruptly realized that something was wrong. Barbara had stopped talking. When he turned, she was looking down at her daybook, frowning at a spill of ink onto the page.
"I can close the window," said Hornblower. He realized now that it was cooler than he had thought, and the wind held a threatening note of rain. Barbara, fashionably dressed in a light, white gown, must be quite chilled.
"It's not that." Barbara set down her pen and blotted the ink away. "I only—It's funny, darling, but it only now occurs to me that you will be alone out there."
"Of course I won't be alone," said Hornblower, thinking of the hundreds of men who would be under his command.
"I meant," said Barbara, "that there will be no one to take care of you."
"Oh, Bush will be with me," said Hornblower.
Barbara's expression became a little bemused. Hornblower thought back on what he had just said and inwardly winced. He should have agreed with Barbara and wished fervently that she was accompanying him, even though such a thing would be onerous if not impossible. Failing that, he should have said something about Brown. But instead his mind had jumped immediately to Bush, who was always concerned that Hornblower was not sleeping enough, not eating properly, not being recognized for his talents. Bush, who would surely be appreciated by any wife who wanted her husband to be better cared for. Bush, who an intelligent man would draw no attention to, lest his wife discover that her husband shared his affections a little more freely than he ought.
"Bush?" asked Barbara.
"William Bush will be my captain," said Hornblower, trying to seem natural. "I believe you met when he was my lieutenant on the Lydia."
Barbara smiled. "Yes, the dependable Lieutenant Bush. Captain Bush, now. Where is he, at sea?"
"Sheerness," said Hornblower. "He had a shore appointment after his injury."
Barbara nodded slowly and made a new note in her daybook. Then another note, and another, until Hornblower was watching with deep unease as Barbara made an entirely new list of tasks.
"You must ask him to dinner," said Barbara.
"Dinner?" Hornblower tried to imagine Bush at dinner with his wife. It was amusing as a fantasy and awful as a potential reality. "I don't think—"
"I haven't seen him in so many years," said Barbara. "Indulge me, darling. I only want to thank him for his services and wish you both the best of luck."
For a moment Hornblower thought of making light of Barbara's request, but it was completely understandable that Barbara would want to meet Bush. As captain of Hornblower's flagship, Bush would hold Hornblower's life in his hands, as he would hold the lives of every sailor on board. Any wife would want to take the measure of such a powerful man.
The problem, simply put, was that Hornblower did not want them to meet. Part of it was pure selfishness, which normally Hornblower would have been quick to overrule. He didn't want to share either Barbara or Bush, not even with each other. His life was sharply divided into the portion he spent on land and the portion he spent at sea, and it seemed odd and a little unnatural whenever those two portions mixed together.
The larger part of Hornblower's reluctance, however, was cautiousness. If Barbara spoke with Bush, there was a chance that something might slip out. For the sake of his honor and his marriage, Barbara must never know about the nights Hornblower had shared with Bush in Portsmouth, nor those on the Hotspur. Nor those nights on the Lydia, even as Barbara slept in the lieutenant's cabin, having displaced Bush supposedly to the wardroom and in fact to the captain's cabin. Not every night, but often enough.
It occurred to Hornblower that he and Bush had been very incautious, and it was not unlikely—perhaps it was even likely—that he had already said something indiscreet to Barbara. Perhaps this new interest in Bush was masking some plan to have her wifely revenge on a rival object of her husband's affections. Illicit affections, which Hornblower should have never—
"Are you all right, dear?" asked Barbara.
"Perfectly," said Hornblower, stiffly, and then cursing himself for the stiffness. "I shall write to Bush tomorrow."
Privately he decided that he would do no such thing.
"Thank you for coming with such short notice," said Hornblower, when he met Bush's carriage outside his gate.
"Of course, sir," said Bush. "I was delighted to receive your letter."
In the end, Hornblower had found no way to avoid writing to Bush without appearing suspiciously careless to Barbara. He had sent the letter to Sheerness, hoping that Bush had decamped to Chichester to visit his sisters, or was already with the Nonsuch making preparations for their departure. Much to Hornblower's dismay, Bush had written back immediately to say that he would come down directly.
They strolled up to Hornblower's house together. Hornblower found himself stepping more and more quickly down the path, anxious to reach the door and Barbara, and be done with it. Soon Hornblower realized that Bush was having trouble keeping up, and he slowed until Bush was wrinkling his brow and moderating his step to accommodate him. Hornblower tried to walk at his usual pace, but couldn't remember what it was.
"How are your sisters?" asked Hornblower.
"They're well enough." Bush smiled. "They'll be pleased that you asked after them—I'm going home for a day before I continue on to the Nonsuch, and I'll make sure to remember you to them."
"Thank you." It was strangely gratifying that Bush had decided to visit Hornblower before seeing his sisters, even though Hornblower might wish that Bush hadn't visited at all. "Lady Barbara is very interested to see you again. About that, actually—"
But there was Barbara, coming down the path to meet them, and Hornblower had no time to warn Bush to guard his tongue about their past activities, if he knew what was good for him.
"Barbara," said Hornblower, "allow me to present Captain William Bush. Captain Bush, my wife, Lady Barbara."
Bush bowed over Barbara's hand. "A great pleasure."
"I should say the very same." Barbara squeezed Bush's hand and then reached out to take Hornblower's arm. "It's been a long time, hasn't it? But I've heard so much about you since."
"Really?" Bush glanced over at Hornblower, and the honest pleasure in his eyes was extremely worrying. "I'm honored."
They started walking again, past the gardens and up to the door.
"Beautiful grounds," said Bush, with the polite uneasiness of a man who didn't really understand grounds or what one did with them. Hornblower allowed himself a small smirk, but tried to pull it into a smile when Bush glanced at him.
"We have a very talented gardener," said Barbara.
Hornblower opened the door and held it for Barbara and Bush.
"Dinner is in an hour, I think, perhaps less," said Barbara. "In the meantime—have you met Richard, Captain Bush?"
"I've not had the opportunity," said Bush.
"I'll fetch the nurse," said Barbara. "In the drawing room, Horatio?"
Hornblower nodded, and as Barbara left, he took Bush's elbow momentarily to guide him.
"Listen," hissed Hornblower. "It's very important that you say nothing—"
"Very nice house," said Bush, as they passed from the entryway to the drawing room. "I suppose that's Lady Barbara's doing?"
"She has a free hand with the ornaments," said Hornblower, briefly distracted. "She knows more about such things."
"Is there anything here that's yours?" asked Bush, sounding a little lost. Hornblower could understand the feeling. On his ships, he had laid his mark on everything from the way the men coiled the rope to how each gun was fired. At Smallbridge he was in Barbara's domain, and it made him feel queerly unmoored and anchored all at once.
"There's Barbara," said Hornblower, slowly. "And Richard, of course. And now—"
Bush turned his eyes on him, and Hornblower bit off what he had been about to say. It would give completely the wrong impression if he were to say 'and now there's you,' even though it perfectly captured how he felt. Bush was his, his officer and his man, and now he was in Hornblower's home. But Hornblower needed to tell Bush not to act like that.
"Bush," said Hornblower. "You mustn't—"
"Here we are," said Barbara, Richard and nurse in tow.
Hornblower dropped Bush's elbow immediately. But not, he thought, before Barbara's sharp eyes had spotted it.
"I have to speak with the cook," said Barbara, "but here is Richard. I'll leave you to acquaint yourselves, shall I?"
"Thank you, dear," said Hornblower, still trying to rub the warmth of Bush's elbow away from his fingertips. He hadn't realized he had been holding it all that time. What had Bush thought? What had Barbara thought?
Barbara departed, all business and haste, and the nurse tactfully withdrew into the parlor room, leaving space for fatherly bonding while still remaining in reach should Richard need handling. For his own part, Richard inspected Bush very solemnly from knee-height.
"I would sit on the floor for you," Bush told him, "but I'm afraid that with my leg, I might not get up again."
"Here's a chair," said Hornblower, bringing it forward.
"Thank you," said Bush, and smiled at Hornblower, so grateful for such a small gesture. Hornblower smiled back at him for a moment before he pulled himself up sharply and tried to remember that he could not have Bush looking at him like that in the presence of his wife and child.
Bush sat down and scooped Richard up, setting him on his knee in one smooth motion. Richard squeaked and giggled.
"You're a big little man, aren't you?" Bush tweaked Richard's nose, and Richard giggled again.
"He's still unbreeched," said Hornblower. "Not so big, yet."
"I see your father in you," Bush told Richard. "Look at those eyes. The hair is all your mother, though." He bounced his knee a little to set Richard to squeaking. For a moment Hornblower could see what Bush saw—Richard as a mingling of Hornblower and Maria, with the strong influence of Barbara on his upbringing and manner. Bush had an almost... longing look on his face as he teased Richard.
"Do you have any nieces or nephews, Bush?" asked Hornblower.
"Not yet," said Bush. "Ellen is courting, but it will be years before she's ready to settle down. Julia says she's done with men, after her last suitor moved to London and took up with some woman out there. Kate—" Bush pursed his lips. "Well, I'll believe that Kate will marry when I am giving her away at the altar, and not a moment before."
"That bad, eh?" Hornblower laughed, and Bush looked guiltily amused as he let Richard grab at his fingers.
"Kate's main interest seems to be sewing," said Bush. "Which is very ladylike and proper, except that her interest in anything else extends only to whether it will provide her with cloth and thread. I wrote her a letter just last week—"
Hornblower stood and listened, delighting in the novelty of Bush speaking so much at once. He knew that Bush was apt to talk about his sisters, having grown up completely enmeshed in their lives and quick to return to the fold as soon as he returned to England. But Hornblower rarely remembered to ask after them, and it was rarer still that he inquired when Bush actually had news to report, rather than the three or four well-worn anecdotes he told at ship dinners.
Richard was just beginning to fuss when they were rescued by the appearance of Barbara and the quiet return of the nurse.
"It will be much less than an hour after all," announced Barbara. "I must dress for dinner, and Horatio—"
"I'm sure Bush wants to get out of his traveling clothes," said Hornblower. "I'll show him to the spare bedroom before I dress."
Bush handed Richard over to the nurse and got up, a little stiffly. "Is that where my case is, sir?"
"Mhm." Hornblower brought up his hand to guide Bush again, and then dropped it, feeling Barbara's eyes on his back.
"I don't have anything besides my uniform to wear for dinner," said Bush.
"That will be perfect," said Hornblower, already thinking with distaste of the fine gray suit laid out for him. "Bush, you mustn't say a word to Barbara."
Bush stopped in the act of extracting his coat from his case. "About what, sir?"
"About anything," said Hornblower, and then realized that was clearly inadequate. "I mean, she mustn't know how close we are when we're at sea."
"I see." Bush looked away, pulling out his uniform trousers. "Of course I wouldn't discuss that with your wife, sir."
"Good." Hornblower nodded to himself. That was settled. He should have known that he could trust Bush to be discreet.
Bush remained silent as he finished unpacking his case. Bush wasn't one to chatter unnecessarily, especially since he knew Hornblower well enough to realize that Hornblower disliked talking when he was nervous. But after a while, the quiet began to get on Hornblower's nerves.
"Is there a problem?"
Bush grunted noncommittally and began fiddling with his buttons.
"You had better tell me," said Hornblower.
"I think she knows already," said Bush. "You're not—I didn't want to say anything, sir, but you don't hide things very well from people who know you properly."
Hornblower controlled his face very carefully, preventing his annoyance from showing. Bush looked at him despairingly.
"You see?" he said. "Like that."
"I don't know what you're talking about, Bush," said Hornblower, in clipped tones.
"That's the problem," muttered Bush.
Hornblower drew breath to say something sharp, and then bit it off. "Ha-h'm," he said, instead.
"Oh, no," said Bush.
"I'm sure everything is fine," said Hornblower, heavily. "I must dress. We'll see you at dinner presently." He stalked out before he could apparently betray himself further.
The door between Hornblower's dressing room and Barbara's was open, and Barbara was in the middle stages of dressing for dinner, attended by her maid. Hornblower thought of calling for Brown to assist him, but decided that he'd rather not interact with another former shipmate just now.
Barbara slipped into the room, fully dressed, as Hornblower struggled to fit himself into the excruciatingly tight trousers that Barbara had purchased for him. He was sure he had told Brown to lay out something more comfortable for this evening.
"Is Captain Bush settling in?" asked Barbara.
"Everything seems well," said Hornblower. He tried to button up the front panel of his trousers and failed utterly. "Damn! Sorry."
Barbara closed the connecting door, leaving her alone with Hornblower in his room, and then drew closer. "Let me help, dear."
Hornblower sucked in a breath as she plunged a hand down his trousers, adjusting his lower anatomy and then quickly buttoning him up with light fingers. "You told the tailor that you dressed to the right, remember?" murmured Barbara.
"I didn't exactly know what that meant," admitted Hornblower.
Barbara hummed and patted the front of his trousers proprietarily. "The Captain is very handsome, isn't he?"
Hornblower shuttered his expression at the change in subject, and then tried to unshutter it as he recalled what Bush had said. Barbara watched him with a small smile playing over her lips.
"I trust your judgment on that, dearest," said Hornblower, trying to inject some emotion into his voice. The right emotion. Whatever that might be.
Barbara laughed and handed Hornblower his waistcoat. Hornblower grinned back and resigned himself to bewilderment.
Dinner eased Hornblower's tension. Over the courses, Bush and Barbara traded naval and court gossip, talked about Richard, and spent a great deal of time discussing Hornblower himself, especially his proclivities for not sleeping enough and putting himself in unnecessary danger. It was a little embarrassing, but exactly what Hornblower would expect from a normal conversation between a commodore's wife and the commodore's captain. Hornblower sat back and restricted himself to disputing Bush's claims that Hornblower ought to delegate more and take less upon himself.
By the time the dishes were being cleared away and Hornblower was opening the sherry, his worries were almost completely gone. Bush had been imagining things—he was, as usual, a little overprotective. Barbara was being a perfect hostess, gesturing at Hornblower to top off Bush's glass. And hers. And his own.
In fact, Barbara was being very liberal with the sherry. It had been a wedding present, and was probably meant to be enjoyed with more discernment and care, but by the time this occurred to Hornblower he was two large glasses along and couldn't bring himself to mind.
They adjourned to the parlor, bringing the bottle with them. After a while, Hornblower was forced to retrieve another bottle from the liquor cabinet. This bottle was brandy, which made Bush's eyes light a little, and in turn made Hornblower feel pleased with himself. Barbara smiled to see him smile, and Hornblower smiled wider, feeling loose and easy in their company. He sank into his chair and discreetly tried to loosen the waistband of his trousers as he nursed his glass. Barbara and Bush turned matching fond blue eyes at him, before returning to their discussion about whether or not Barbara should pay through the nose for apricot preserves to send with Hornblower, or if canned peaches would be sufficient.
Returning a little later from attending to some necessary business, Hornblower hovered for the moment in the doorway to watch his wife and his captain together. Their heads were close, and Barbara was laughing at something Bush had said. Bush smiled back at her, and the sight warmed Hornblower's heart. No, his belly, warmth rising up from his core and extending to every extremity. It was absurd to be so affected, but it was wonderful to see things going so well. Or possibly it was the liquor.
Then Barbara turned and caught sight of him, and had to bring her hand up to stifle giggles. Bush suddenly looked very stoic, and the warmth in Hornblower's belly turned cold. Clearly they had been sharing stories about him.
"What's all this?" asked Hornblower, finally entering the parlor room properly. "Are you mocking your commanding officer, Mr. Bush?"
"Never, sir," Bush assured him. He unbent enough to let a half-smile drift onto his face and away again.
"Captain Bush was telling me about your capture of that Spanish fort, Horatio," said Barbara. "And your mishap with the red-hot shot. I can just imagine your face when you discovered that the shot wouldn't even fit in the gun."
Hornblower smiled, ruefully. "I was a damn fool for not thinking of it at the time. Pardon my language, my dear."
"Not many fools could have worked out how to make red-hot shot with nothing but a furnace and a guess," said Bush, earnestly. "It was very quick thinking, the whole day. Although, at the time..." The half-smile was back, and broadening. "Well, I thought you were a little too clever to be commanded by the likes of me."
"I still cannot imagine Horatio as your subordinate, Captain." Barbara's own smile was wider, less genteel than normal, and Hornblower suspected that more drinks had been poured and consumed in his absence. "What was it like?"
"Mr. Bush was a very able and inspiring senior lieutenant," said Hornblower.
Bush was silent for a long moment, and then looked up at Hornblower with wide and innocent eyes. "Might I speak freely, sir?"
"Will I regret it if you do?" asked Hornblower. "Oh, go on, Bush. This is my parlor, not my deck."
"Mr. Hornblower," said Bush, slowly, "not Captain Hornblower, mind. Mr. Hornblower was a very disquieting man to have as a junior officer."
"What!" said Hornblower. Barbara giggled again, not hiding it well at all.
"Always had an answer for everything," mused Bush, warming to his subject. "Anticipated orders to the point of giving them himself. Steered his superiors around to his point of view without them ever noticing. And always right, so you couldn't even scold him for overstepping. Face like a mask, just when you most wanted to know what was going on in that head of his."
"Such disrespect for your superior!" said Hornblower, a little too shocked to mean it as jokingly as he would like.
"Not for his superior," said Barbara. "For that long-ago subordinate."
"Yes, exactly." Bush tipped her a wink that he would never have dreamed of performing before sherry had given way to brandy. "A very good officer, I told Lieutenant Buckland that myself. But Mr. Hornblower had all of the qualities of a captain, which is a little unnerving for the senior lieutenant who finds himself in charge of such a man."
Hornblower was sure that Bush meant all of this as a kind of compliment. He poured himself another drink and tried to take it as such.
"I was glad when you were promoted," said Bush. "And gladder still when I was assigned to you. I remember when we first set sail with the Hotspur—"
Hornblower sat back with his brandy and listened to Bush tell Barbara stories about him. It was uncomfortable to listen to his career be turned into a series of amusing anecdotes, his minor failures rehashed in agonizing detail. But as Bush spoke and Barbara laughed, Hornblower began to realize that to them, his faults simply did not matter. Bush found them inconsequential, mere signs that his heroic superior was flesh and blood, not the pure alabaster that he sometimes seemed to be. Barbara found Hornblower's faults endearing, every flaw another reason to love him more dearly as something fragile and needing protection.
It made Hornblower squirm inwardly to listen then, to know that the parts of himself that he would like to excise were so valued by those he most loved. After a few more stories the rest of his drink, he began to squirm outwardly as well, trying to somehow escape the scrutiny while also craving more of it.
The conversation lulled while Hornblower shifted in the chair. He looked to Bush and saw Bush's heated gaze, he looked to Barbara and saw the same desire reflected in her eyes. Hornblower swallowed and decided, for the fifteenth time, that it had been a very bad idea to ask Bush to Smallbridge.
"I think we ought to retire soon, dearest," he said to Barbara. "We mustn't keep Captain Bush up too late."
"Mustn't we?" said Barbara, vaguely, and then she smiled and her tone sharpened. "Yes, I think bed is a very good idea. Why don't you clear away the bottle and lock up the liquor cabinet while I show Captain Bush to the guest bedroom?"
"Thank you very much, Lady Barbara," said Bush, rising a little unsteadily to his feet.
They departed quickly, leaving Hornblower to wonder what exactly Barbara was planning. He had already shown Bush to his room once, and he would be surprised if Bush was unable to find it, even in this state of (very mild) inebriation. Barbara must have wanted another moment alone with Bush for some purpose. She might want to ask him something important. Something about his conduct with Hornblower.
Hornblower wanted, very badly, to know what Barbara was talking to Bush about. He thought about eavesdropping outside Bush's room, but that was hardly fit for a newly-appointed commodore, let alone Barbara's husband. But if he went up to bed, he would pass Bush's bedroom in the hall. Perhaps he would happen to hear something as he walked by.
Perhaps he didn't want to know what Barbara was saying after all. Especially not if it was anything like what he expected.
Hornblower picked up the bottle to put it away, but hesitated when he realized just how little was left. He considered it for a moment, and then carefully poured out the single remaining finger of brandy and knocked it back in a way that did a terrible disservice to a fine vintage.
Upstairs, Hornblower hung up his coat and unbuttoned his waistcoat. He was contemplating removing his trousers when Barbara entered his dressing room. She was still in full dress, and she had an uncertain look. Hornblower's fingers stilled on his buttons.
"I was just talking to Captain Bush," said Barbara.
"You were talking for a long time," said Hornblower.
Barbara nodded. "At first, I wanted to ask him a favor. To look after you, while you're at sea."
Hornblower made a small noise, annoyed that Barbara had seen fit to burden poor Bush with her wifely expectations. Barbara smiled ruefully.
"I know, darling, but I do worry. I've lost one husband to the war already." Barbara hesitated, and then continued. "The Captain told me that he would, of course. But then I'm afraid that I asked him another favor."
There was a pause long enough for the hair on the back of Hornblower's neck to stand up in anticipation. Finally, Barbara said "I know that you and the Captain are... intimate, and—"
Hornblower went cold, and he was rude enough to interrupt. "What did he tell you?”
"He denied it," said Barbara, and her lips curved. "You might have thought that I was Napoleon himself, for all he would tell me. But I know—I know you, Horatio."
Hornblower sat down heavily in a chair. His mind whirled as he considered the possibilities. Public humiliation was unlikely, given Barbara's pride. But private disgrace was quite probable, and his career would be in shambles with Barbara's influential family turned against him. And he would lose Barbara, Barbara who was the closest companion he had on land. Hornblower had never been so happy as he had been with her. Well, no. Upon reflection, he had been happiest while watching a plan fall into place or when he first took sole command of a ship. But just now, Hornblower felt keenly that he should be happiest in the warm embrace of marital bliss.
"I'm very sorry," said Hornblower, knowing even as he said it that it couldn't possibly be enough.
"Are you?" Barbara leaned down to him, stroking her hand through his hair and down his cheek. "I'm not looking for an apology, dearest. It would be a little hypocritical of me to balk at adultery, given our history together. And having heard the history of your friendship from the Captain tonight, I don't think I could assert the prior claim."
"I should have told you," said Hornblower. "I should have said something as soon as you asked me to invite Bush to Smallbridge." And instead, he thought bitterly, he had worn his fears on his face the entire day.
"Mhm." Something flashed in Barbara's eyes, and Hornblower thought she was probably not as calm as she appeared to be. But her smile quickly resurfaced. "I didn't tell you in order to scold you. I was actually trying to preface a request."
"I'll do anything for you," said Hornblower, immediately. Surely Barbara was owed it.
"I've always had this fancy," said Barbara, and then flushed, inexplicably. "Call it a fascination. Would you be interested in a ménage à trois?"
"Just for tonight," said Barbara. "So I can see what it's like, between you and Captain Bush. So I know that you'll be well cared for when we are separated."
Hornblower continued to stare.
"Horatio, are you all right?"
"This," said Hornblower, "is not at all how I expected this conversation to go."
Bush was already sitting on Hornblower's bed, in shirtsleeves. Apparently Barbara had been confident enough in Hornblower's response to have Bush wait.
"You've agreed to this, have you?" Hornblower asked him.
"Lady Barbara is very convincing." Bush made a face, as if he wanted to look chastened but couldn't quite manage it.
Barbara sat down on the bed beside Bush and gestured at the back of her dress. "Unlace me, please, Captain."
Bush glanced at Hornblower, and then did as instructed. Hornblower watched and tried to decide if he was jealous. He thought not. Barbara was his and Bush was his, and it felt right that they should all be together. Land and sea met at the shore, after all.
"You did try to tell me that she knew," said Hornblower.
"The Captain is a very observant," said Barbara, a little muffled as she drew her dress over her head. "Which is obvious, since he speaks so highly of you."
"Really," said Hornblower. "What have you been telling my wife, Bush?"
Bush licked his lips nervously, looking between them. "I—You heard what I said at dinner, sir."
"Yes," said Hornblower. "You complained about what a poor subordinate I made."
"When I confronted him," said Barbara, "he would only say that you were the finest officer in His Majesty's navy, and that you were nothing but a credit to the service."
The tease Hornblower had been about to make died on his lips, and he felt his cheeks heat. Barbara pulled off her petticoat.
"I am not always a credit to the service," said Hornblower, thinking, among other things, about the deeds he was planning to perpetrate with these willing accomplices.
Barbara rolled her eyes. Bush wrinkled his brow.
"I can't think of a time you were not, sir," said Bush. Hornblower tried to wave it away, but Bush shook his head and continued. "I cannot tell you how proud I am to be able to serve under you."
Barbara hid a chuckle with a cough, clearly amused by the innuendo. Hornblower was momentarily annoyed to hear Bush make light of his new commission, until he looked at Bush's open, earnest face and realized that no double meaning had been intended. Bush was proud to be Hornblower's captain. Hornblower flushed and muttered a denial.
"I mean it," insisted Bush. "When I was given my orders, and told that you had requested me—well. There wasn't a happier man in the world."
"Bush—William, I cannot believe—"
"You must believe me," said Bush. "You must know how much I admire you, sir."
"I know you admire me," said Hornblower, with some frustration. "You give me too much credit, Bush. I'm not half the man you think me to be."
"Not half!" Bush shook his head in dismay. "Sir, you are much too modest."
"Are you going to argue about this all night?" asked Barbara. "Horatio, accept the poor man's devotion. You deserve it, and he wants so badly to give it."
Hornblower frowned, thinking of all the times he had traded on that devotion, taken advantage of the misguided adoration. "I'm not deserving of this," he said. "See me as I am, Bush, not as—not something untouchable."
"Not untouchable, sir." Bush ran a hand up Hornblower's side, smiling as he touched the bare skin of Hornblower's neck and proved himself right. "But brave, and clever, and the best man—"
Hornblower kissed Bush, primarily to shut him up.
Bush mumbled a few muffled words of praise into Hornblower's mouth before giving up and pulling Hornblower down onto the bed with him. They kissed slowly and without urgency, now that Hornblower's initial irritation had passed. Bush rocked against Hornblower's thigh, and Hornblower realized that he hadn't kissed anyone besides Barbara in several months and he had forgotten how. Whenever he met something unexpected—Bush's wind-chapped lips, the slight bristle of his chin, his large hands—he would flinch and hesitate until Bush swept his tongue between Hornblower's lips and tugged him close again.
Hornblower felt a slim hand rest on his back and Barbara leant over his shoulder. Bush broke away to look at her, and Hornblower panted indecorously, feeling oddly comfortable caught between them. Of course, as soon as Hornblower thought that, he noticed that the edge of Barbara's corset was poking him in the backside, and the buttons of his own open waistcoat must be digging into Bush's chest.
"I'd just like to point out," said Barbara, echoing his thoughts, "that I have been disrobing while you two remain almost entirely clothed."
"I'm sorry, my dear." Hornblower twisted a little to look back at Barbara. "Who shall we undress first?"
Barbara's eyes flicked familiarly over him, resting for a moment on his half-risen arousal, before lighting on Bush's flushed face.
"Guests first, of course," said Barbara, and Bush reacted with as much alacrity as if he had just been given an order by an admiral. Unfortunately he was unable to get very far with his mission to remove his trousers with Hornblower lying on top off him, and he was soon distracted by running his hands along Hornblower's hips.
"Let me help you." Hornblower knocked Bush's hands out of the way and undid Bush’s buttons. He opened the drop panel first and pressed the heel of his hand to Bush's shirt-covered cock, causing Bush to hiss and buck a little against him. Hornblower pulled back and then ghosted his knuckles against the shaft, up and down as Bush swore at him, half apologetic and half furious, and Barbara's breath grew heavy against Hornblower's neck. Finally Hornblower took pity (or was satisfied that Bush would be entirely speechless for the rest of the act), and unbuttoned the waist of Bush's breeches and pulled them down his hips. Hornblower had to roll off Bush to get the breeches entirely off, dislodging Barbara and bringing himself face-to-knee when Bush's false leg was revealed. Hornblower hesitated, which unfortunately gave Bush time to recover.
"I'd rather have it removed," said Bush. "If it—it won't bother you?"
"Of course not," said Hornblower, watching closely as Bush undid the laces and pulled his flesh free from the cuff that held the wooden leg to it. The skin underneath looked red, and when Hornblower gingerly ran his hand over it, it was warm.
"Does it chafe?" asked Hornblower.
"A little," said Bush. "It's not as bad as it could be."
Hornblower ran his hand up Bush's thigh, up and up. He stopped thinking about Bush's leg and wrapped his hand around Bush's cock, this time pushing the shirt out of the way.
"Oh." Bush flushed and twitched, as if he were trying to keep his hips still. "Thank you, sir—"
"You needn't thank me," said Hornblower. "And don't call me sir." He tingled whenever Bush called him sir in bed, and that was reason enough to forbid it. It would be disastrous if he were to make any associations between standard naval formality and this.
Barbara shifted so she was at Bush's back, propping him up with her body. "Don't listen to him," she murmured in Bush's ear, still loud enough that Hornblower could hear every word clear as a bell. "He likes it when you address him with the respect that he's earned."
Bush grinned. "Don't I know it?"
Hornblower frowned and sped up his hand a little. Bush's hips jerked, and his head fell back on Barbara's shoulder, eyes slipping closed.
"Tell him," said Barbara. "Tell him he's earned it."
"Every bit of it," gasped Bush. "Every promotion, every honor, earned with sweat and blood and daring. There's not a man who's served with you who doesn't know your worth."
Hornblower shuddered, caught between shame and pleasure as his mind tried to counter-argue the compliments. "There are plenty of men who don't like me."
"But they respect you," insisted Bush. "Because you forced them to, showed them they couldn't underestimate you, taught them, oh—"
Hornblower spat on his hand and jerked a little more harshly, hoping that it would be enough to quiet Bush. But he hadn't counted on Barbara, pulling Bush's shirt up so she could run her hands over his chest, murmuring in Bush's ear to go on. Bush groaned out Hornblower's praises, Barbara grinned a little wider with each word, and Hornblower squirmed into an increasingly volatile state of embarrassment and almost unwilling arousal.
"Countermanded," gasped Hornblower at last, unable to take it any longer. "Don't you say another word, William."
"Sir?" Bush's eyes opened in shock. As if he didn't realize the effect that his words were having on Hornblower. As if he wasn't saying anything out of the ordinary.
"Tell him that he's beautiful," said Barbara, imperious and irrepressible.
"Don't," begged Hornblower, even as his cock filled painfully at the thought.
Bush looked up at him, wondering. "I can't," he said. "I don't have the words."
Hornblower twisted his wrist and ran his thumb over the head of Bush's cock, and Bush spent all over his hand.
"God," mumbled Hornblower, already scrabbling at the buttons at his waist and smearing the mess over his trousers. He felt like he was going to burst, and the hated tight trousers were not helping in the least. "Damn, damn, da— ah!"
Barbara bowled him over, as Bush got hurriedly out of their way. She pushed him onto his back and then pushed herself down to bring her mouth in very close contact with the cloth covering Hornblower's arousal. Hornblower gasped and tried not to buck. Barbara ran her tongue over the front of Hornblower's trousers, catching traces of Bush's cooling spend. She wrinkled her nose at the taste and then laughed at Bush's stunned look.
"Darling," said Hornblower, and then could not find it in himself to say anything more. Barbara looked up at him knowingly, and then mercifully peeled Hornblower's trousers down. Not much, just far enough to free his cock so that she could swallow it one smooth movement that spoke volumes about their marital activities. Hornblower met Bush's eyes to see them go black with arousal, and then looked down at Barbara and found he could not tear his gaze away.
Hornblower had to concentrate very hard on not making this short. He wanted this to be a long and detailed memory, for the voyage to come. He was concentrating so hard on prolonging the pleasure that he was unable to forestall a whimper when Barbara pulled away.
"Keep talking to him," she said.
"What?" said Bush. He reached out, as if to touch Barbara's full, slick lips, and then jerked his hand back.
"Tell him that he's good at something," said Barbara. "Anything. I like the way it makes him look."
"What?" said Hornblower.
"You look pleased and confused, as if you're waiting for the catch," said Barbara. "It's adorable. Carry on, Captain."
Barbara plunged down again, and Bush had to swallow a few times before finding his voice. "You're, ah, Horatio—Sir—"
Hornblower's hips twitched and Barbara took him a little deeper. Bush stared at them and seemed completely lost for words until Barbara snapped her fingers at him impatiently.
"You're very good at mathematics?" tried Bush, and then grew more confident as Barbara made an encouraging noise that made Hornblower groan. "I know it by rote and instinct, sir, but you can make the most difficult calculation seem like the simplest trick. When I try to make the proper corrections to calculate the ship's position—"
"That is very simple, Bush," panted Hornblower, trying very hard not to rudely shove into his wife's mouth. He felt much less flattered at Bush's praise than irritated that Bush was making him think of numbers at such an intimate moment. Then he was irritated at the fact that he was beginning to conflate irritation and arousal, and the whole thing spiraled into a messy angry desire to reach his completion. He hoped Barbara was happy with this outcome.
"It's not simple for me, sir," said Bush. Only his flushed face betrayed that he was conversing in the middle of an obscene act. Hornblower wondered if focusing on such mundane matters was the only way Bush could speak normally. "All those corrections."
"I've explained this to you before." Hornblower wanted, desperately, to stop talking about maths. He wanted Barbara to bob her head a little faster. He had the distinct sense that if Bush stopped talking, Barbara would stop moving, and he couldn't think clear enough to resolve the contradiction between his two great desires.
"It makes perfect sense when you explain it, sir," said Bush, smiling ruefully. "But afterward it melts away. I haven't the talent for it, not like you have."
"It's only—" Hornblower tried to think of a way to say 'it's nothing' without insulting Bush. It was difficult when Barbara was doing whatever she was doing with her throat. Laughing? Was she laughing at him? Oh, God, it felt amazing.
Hornblower came, confused and flustered and more than a little outraged, and he came harder, he thought, than he ever had in his life. Barbara swallowed and then rose gracefully up, reaching out to kiss not Hornblower, but Bush.
Bush kissed her back, but his hands fluttered over her shoulders, as if he wasn't sure what would be too far. Hornblower smiled, outrage disappearing in the afterglow. "It's all right, William, you can kiss my wife. Only when I'm watching, mind."
Reassured, Bush grasped Barbara by the shoulder and buttock, pulling her flush against him as they kissed. Barbara pulled her head back a little, and Bush drifted down to kiss her jaw, her neck.
"That was perfect," sighed Barbara. "Mathematics. I can hardly believe it."
"You're perfect," mumbled Bush, into the swell of Barbara's breasts. "Both of you."
For a moment, hazy from release, Hornblower could almost believe it.
"I feel so empty I might die," said Barbara.
That, Hornblower could not believe. But he understood the sentiment behind it.
"William," said Hornblower.
"Sadly," said Bush, "I'm not as young as I was. You can't expect me to do anything about Lady Barbara's distress."
"Can you think of nothing you might do?" Hornblower smirked. "Don't you remember Kingston?"
Bush went completely red.
"I thought I liked it when you were reminiscing." Barbara tried to pull Bush's face back to her body. "But now I find that I don't. What happened in Kingston?"
"Let me help you off with your corset, darling," said Hornblower. "And then Captain Bush will show you."
Hornblower slowly unlaced Barbara as he considered what exactly he wanted Bush to do. Bush and Hornblower had not yet been intimate with each other when they had received prize money in Kingston and spent it all much too quickly (although with a great deal of enjoyment). But they had shared a few women between them, and Hornblower had made the happy discovery that he enjoyed pleasuring a woman with his mouth and that Bush enjoyed watching him do so. Hornblower had even made himself so bold as to instruct his elder in the best way to proceed.
At the time, the instruction had taken place with Bush on his knees. Now, it appeared that would be uncomfortable or impossible. Which was unfortunate, since Hornblower had liked the sight of Bush on his knees. He'd have to think of something else.
Barbara drew off her shift and looked over her shoulder at Hornblower. He kissed her, not hurrying, thoughtful.
"Take off your shirt and get on your back, William," Hornblower said when he resurfaced. "Darling, let me give you a hand up."
Seated over Bush's mouth, Barbara proved once again to be the experienced and mature woman that Hornblower loved, shamelessly taking her pleasure as she ground down against Bush's tongue. Hornblower watched them together for a little while before moving to take some of Barbara's weight, lifting her just enough to give Bush room to move and breathe a little more freely.
"Start simple," advised Hornblower, as Barbara squirmed happily in his grip. "A light, teasing touch." Then, as Barbara's breath began to come in pants, Hornblower said "handsomely, now," and Bush dug his hands into Barbara's backside and really went to work. Hornblower took his opportunity to kiss Barbara and feel her sigh into his mouth.
It ended, a good while later, in a heap. Uncomfortable, sticky, hot, and deeply satisfying. Eventually Barbara got up just long enough to open the window and let them cool from the fresh summer air. When she laid back down, it was with her head on Hornblower's shoulder and one leg thrown across Hornblower's thigh. Bush had arranged himself half on Hornblower's chest, the top of his head tucked against Hornblower's chin. Hornblower privately felt that the bed was large enough to hold three people without requiring two of them to be on top of the third, but he kept these thoughts to himself and after a moment he even began to enjoy the shift of Barbara's hair against his neck and the weight of Bush against his every breath.
For the moment, Hornblower found that he was not worrying about whether he should be happy or free from care. He simply was happy, to the point that it excluded all other concerns.
Of course, once he had thought that, the concerns came crashing back in. But Hornblower had enjoyed that brief moment immensely.
"I like your captain," said Barbara, tiredly.
"Yes," said Hornblower, and ran his fingers through Bush's disheveled hair. "Excellent show, Captain Bush."
"Thank you, sir," said Bush. His eyes were closed.
"I told you, you needn't thank me," said Hornblower, but Bush was asleep and past arguing. After a moment Hornblower realized that Barbara had fallen asleep as well.
Trapped underneath and between them, Hornblower let himself fall asleep. He hoped that Barbara had had the presence of mind to tell the servants not to disturb them.
Hornblower was blearily exhausted from drink in the morning, while Bush and Barbara were chipper despite Bush having been woken by Barbara very early so that he would be properly in the guest room when morning came. Hornblower ate breakfast very slowly and carefully while Barbara dominated the morning conversation, Bush nodding and encouraging her to share her every opinion. In a short few hours, Bush was making his goodbyes and hurrying to catch his coach.
"Goodbye, sir," he told Hornblower, cheerfully. "I'll see you in a few days—the ship will be in perfect condition for you. Goodbye, Lady Barbara. A great pleasure to meet you again." Bush made no attempt to conceal his rather rakish grin, and Barbara matched it with one of her own. Hornblower cursed them (inaudibly) for being able to flirt while he was still cudgeling his brains to stay upright without swaying.
"Goodbye, Captain." Barbara let Bush have her hand to bow over. "I'm pleased to know that I will be leaving Horatio in such good hands."
Hornblower jerked a little at the intimation, and Bush's cheeks flushed. "Of course, my lady," said Bush, and shifted a little uncomfortably before summoning up his grin again. "Until we meet again. I hope it will be soon."
Bush departed. Hornblower slumped a little, already thinking of returning to his bed.
"I will be leaving you in good hands, won't I?" asked Barbara.
"Barbara," said Hornblower, "I don't think this conversation is suitable for—"
"I don't mean that," said Barbara. "I only mean that it's clear that Bush cares for you, just as I do. I shan't be worried about you now. Or, I will, but I needn't."
Hornblower did not feel mollified. Hornblower felt like he was soaring. It should have been impossible for yesterday to go so well. If Barbara had turned around and announced that they would spend the day checking on the farms, Hornblower would still feel as if he had got away extremely lightly. She didn't do that. Instead, Barbara looked down at the (old, comfortable) trousers that Hornblower was wearing and smiled.
"Would it please you," she said, "to know that the trousers you were wearing last night are utterly ruined?"
"Not at all," lied Hornblower. "What a shame."
"Oh!" Barbara didn't bother to disguise her grin. "Then I will have them cleaned myself. You must keep in good exercise, so they will fit when you return."
She turned and swept back into the house, leaving Hornblower to resign himself to being a figure of his wife's amusement. It was much easier now than it had been before.